John Becker is said to have shown his Hatboro Police Department badge while hawking firearms allegedly stolen from the station’s evidence locker. In another instance, Becker, a cop of 17 years, is described as being “crazed,” “nuts” and “frantic” while allegedly attempting to illegally obtain OxyContin.
One may wonder how a narcotics officer, who had worked for more than a decade in the Montgomery County Drug Task Force, allegedly committed blatantly criminal acts?
The “dumb stuff” that Becker has been charged with doing is attributable to his addiction to pain medications, according to Andy Callaghan, a Philadelphia Police Department detective and coordinator for the First Responders Addiction Treatment program as part of Bensalem-based Livengrin Foundation for Addiction Recovery.
“You can operate in total blackout,” said Callaghan, who has been a police officer for 23 years. “There’s a real possibility he went out and did stuff and didn’t know about it.”
Callaghan began working in the treatment field in 2007 after dealing with his own bout of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which he said was triggered by being involved in two shootings.
“It was active combat,” Callaghan said. “I was shooting it out with some guy.”
In seeking help for himself, Callaghan said he began seeing a link between PTSD and alcohol. First responders were using alcohol to “medicate themselves,” he said.
While he said alcoholism represents the largest substance abuse culprit among first responders, Callaghan said that prescription drug abuse is a “plague” and an “epidemic across this country.”
“One night I was running a group therapy for 20 first responders … 10 out of the 20 were addicted to pain pills,” Callaghan said, adding that the pill use began innocently enough. “They were legitimate on-duty injuries. Anybody who’s been aggressive and has done the job is a little banged up.”
According to the criminal complaint against Becker, the ex-cop’s use of the prescription drug OxyContin began in 2003 as a way to combat severe joint pain associated with an immune deficiency disease.
It is not clear when Becker’s drug use spiraled out of control. Based on information in the criminal complaint, from December 2009 through January 2011, Becker allegedly convinced or coerced several informants – under the guise of furthering narcotics investigations – to buy prescription drugs, as well as cocaine, for his own personal use.
A growing problem
According to the 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an estimated 2.4 million Americans took prescription drugs for non-medical reasons for the first time in 2009.
In Montgomery County, opiates – which includes OxyContin and other prescribed pain medications – were the cause of death in 53 people in 2008 and 63 people in 2009, according to the Drug Abuse Warning Network.
In Bucks County, opiates were the cause of 50 deaths in 2008 and 55 deaths in 2009, according to the network.
‘Better living through chemistry’
Beverly Haberle, executive director of the Council of Southeast Pennsylvania Inc., attributed part of the uptick in prescription drug misuse to the accessibility of drugs.
In some instances doctors write a prescription for 30 or 90 days worth of pills for a short-term problem, like a toothache, she said.
“We have become a society that has truly embraced better living through chemistry,” Haberle said, adding that doctors oftentimes overprescribe medications, which can keep people on drugs longer than necessary, further increasing the likelihood of addiction.
And, unlike people who opt for the occasional drink, Callaghan, who has testified as an expert witnesss, contends that “there’s no such thing as a recreational user of pills."
“Nobody on this planet can take Percocet and not get addicted to it,” Callaghan said. “If you’re going to take pain pills, you’re going to get addicted.”
When prescriptions run out, or the drugs prescribed aren’t enough to feed the addiction, Callaghan said addicts might turn to other types of opiates.
“Sometimes they don’t have the money so they switch to heroin,” he said.
To prevent a potential drug problem before it happens, Callaghan suggests prescribing shorter periods of medication, coupled with more follow-up care.
“Some of these people who manage pain think people should never be in pain. They’re handing the stuff out too much,” Callaghan said. “They don’t do enough to explore alternative medicines.”
Because he knows how dangerous prescription drugs can be, Callaghan, who suffers from chronic back pain, said he works out, stays in shape and goes to the chiropractor so he can avoid taking medicine at all costs.
Haberle suggested looking at it more “holistically” and considering acupuncture, or other integrative medical approaches to ease pain relief.
“We’re seeing more and more people who’ve had histories of addiction seeking help that way as opposed to going and getting a pill,” she said.
With drug abuse, Callaghan said addicts will commonly report “phantom pain.”
“Their addiction is telling them they’re still in pain,” he said. “After detox they go, ‘I feel great.’ ”
Recognizing the signs
Some of the classic signs of substance abuse – missing work, coming in late, or smelling like alcohol – may not be as obvious to detect among first responders, Callaghan said.
“They don’t present outward symptoms. They don’t drink and then go to work. They’re hurting from the night before,” Callaghan said, adding that battles with prescription drugs may be even less obvious. “When somebody starts to withdrawal they start to feel sick. It’s hard to detect sometimes.”
Hatboro officials have declined to discuss whether or not Becker showed any signs of substance abuse prior to the multi-agency investigation, his March 2011 suspension, or his resignation in June 2011. Hatboro Police Chief James Gardner also refused to say if he ever confronted Becker about purported substance abuse issues, or sought help for him.
Hatboro Mayor Norm Hawkes, who, under state law oversees the police department and suspended Becker without pay on March 2, 2011, directed all questions related to Becker to Hatboro Borough Manager Steven Plaugher.
Plaugher said officials designated him last year as the “one voice” on the Becker matter. He told Patch that the borough’s solicitor advised officials not to discuss Becker as he has not yet been prosecuted and the matter could end up going to trial.
Even if Becker showed signs of addiction, actual proof may have been hard to come by since the police department does not conduct random drug screenings, according to Plaugher. Drug tests are a matter of collective bargaining and would have to “bargain into the police contract,” he said. The current contract expires on Dec. 31, 2013.
Montgomery County First Assistant District Attorney Kevin Steele said the county’s drug task force members – of which Becker was a part – are not randomly drug tested.
“Task force detectives’ main job is to work for their own police departments throughout the county,” Steele wrote in an email. “Typically (drug screenings are) done as police officers get their physicals when they get hired for their own departments.”
Drug screens aside, Callaghan contends that if Becker committed the crimes he is accused of, “one of the classic signs probably was there.”
“There had to be something,” Callaghan said. “It’s always harder to make these decisions when you’re emotionally attached. (Police) will see some guy on the corner and say ‘he’s a junkie, I can see it.’ ”
In many instances, first responders will hide their addictions for fear of repercussions, Callaghan said.
“We’re not allowed to have problems,” Callaghan said. “A lot of the cops are afraid to go to their administration because of the nature of what we do … Unfortunately, a lot of cops are in a huge crisis by the time they reach out for help.”
In the first responder realm and beyond, Haberle said the key in substance abuse treatment is to view it for what it is – a disease.
“We have continued to treat it like bad behavior,” Haberle said. “Addiction is a brain disease. Your brain chemistry actually changes.”
Through the council, which provides substance abuse prevention, intervention and recovery services to people in a five-county region, including Montgomery and Bucks counties, Haberle works to “de-stigmatize” substance disorders.
Part of the awareness needed in understanding substance abuse patterns is to become in tune with one’s family history, she said.
“Addiction runs in your family,” Haberle said. “Families should be aware of that just like you’re aware that diabetes runs in your family.
For first responders who seek treatment through Livengrin’s First Responders Addiction Treatment program, which Callaghan helped to establish in June 2011, the key is to “make treatment fashionable in first responder land.”
Callaghan coordinates various support groups for first responders who can lean on each other. In addition, he connects those seeking treatment with a network of sober first responders.
Entering treatment is voluntary and the length of treatment depends on the severity of the addiction – as well as how much an insurance company will cover, he said.
“My goal is to return a first responder to work,” Callaghan said.
In many cases, Callaghan said first responders who seek help before problems get out of hand are able to return to their original duties - even in instances where their work involves substances which led to the addiction.
“If a person wants to be sober, they’re going to be sober,” Callaghan said.
For more information
To learn more about Livengrin Foundation for Addiction Recovery click here. For information on the First Responder Addiction Treatment program, click here, or call 215-638-5200. For first responders interested in requesting a free informational session on recognizing the signs and symptoms of alcohol abuse, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and more, contact Andy Callaghan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Council of Southeast Pennsylvania operates a round-the-clock information, intervention, recovery support line at 1-800-221-6333. Click here for more information.