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Abuse of Authority or Addiction?

Experts in the substance abuse treatment field share insight on what may have led decorated Hatboro police officer John Becker to be arrested for thefts and misuse of drug informants.

is said to have shown his 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 , his , or his . 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.”

Seeking 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 frat@livengrin.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.

Fred Rothco May 24, 2012 at 02:50 PM
The next article should read: CHIEF GARDNER TERMINATED FOR FAILURE TO SUPERVISE. It's not like a city police force. They have what, 10 guys over there? How do you not know one of your cops is emptying the evidence room and addicted to drugs? Instead the Borough is saying Gardner has "their complete confidence". It shows you that corruption comes in all shapes and sizes.
Charlotte S May 24, 2012 at 02:54 PM
Thank you for writing this article. If it can help one person, then you have done your job as a journalist. Thank you.
Patrick May 24, 2012 at 03:57 PM
Agreed. This Chief FAILED TO SUPERVISE and needs to respectfully resign or be forced to. Not only did he fail to supervise - he calls out sick when an officer is in trouble instead of facing the community. He leads by putting his head in the sand. Put a new Chief in and let them lead with complete confidence. Let them hold on to the evidence room key with complete confidence. Let them pay attention to the health of the officers with complete confidence. Let them not let something like this happen ever again. Chief Gardner will not see a lesson in all of this.
ARCpoint of Nashville May 24, 2012 at 06:52 PM
Very informative article. This is the kind of information that needs to be out there for people who are struggling. ARCpoint Labs of Nashville http://www.arcpointlabs.com/nashville
TwinkleToes May 26, 2012 at 08:19 PM
First of all, I can't comprehend the concept of “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.” Why is it that I was able to take them, without any relief for my pain, and stop after just three pills? Seems like a pretty blanket statement. Secondly, I have a little confusion about this comment: “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.’ ” I don't know that it's a matter being emotionally attached as much as a matter of the "signs of addiction" were probably slower as they were with Becker about 5 days a week. "Seeing a junkie on the corner" is quite obvious because they have already gone from zero to ten and are hanging on the corner. I find it hard to believe that Becker went from zero to ten overnight. Why is it that many parents have no clue that their own children are on drugs or are alcoholics? It's not because their head is in the sand but because addicts are d___ good liars. They almost are lying to themselves to approve it. I would almost challenge ANYONE to find me one drug addict (prescription or not) who is NOT a liar.
TwinkleToes May 26, 2012 at 08:21 PM
Finally, I can't understand why people are looking to blame the chief, the department, the mayor, his family, his fiance, or anyone. He has accepted blame. Period. He is not arguing the case. He admitted fault. So no matter who else you want to blame, nothing will change in the case. Pointing fingers at everyone else who might have noticed something, or perhaps should have noticed something, will get you no where but angry. It's over. Period. Well over in fact. Came to a head over a year ago. You would probably be far more productive utilizing your energy elsewhere. And no, I am not related to any of these people. Just a normal citizen who happens to read the patch from time to time.
Hatboro is the best May 26, 2012 at 08:44 PM
Couldn't of said it better twinkle toes, it is over. But to Theresa katalinas it is not she wants to continue writing these stories because the comments/hits on the story/stories the more money she makes. Yes Theresa use addiction and John Becker to line your pocketbook. You have no idea what it is like to be a first responder. You do however seem to understand addiction because you are addicted to John beckers mistake(s) and your continious defamation of the Hatboro police department. Enough.
Hatboro is the best May 26, 2012 at 08:47 PM
No pulitzer prize here Theresa.
Theresa Katalinas (Editor) May 27, 2012 at 12:55 AM
How about you use your real name instead of hiding behind a moniker the next time you choose to log on here and DEFAME ME?! I do not receive payments based on comments or story hits. The mere suggestion of that is not only a lie, but completely offensive. You're right, I don't know what it's like to be a first responder. Never said I did. Clearly, you have no idea what it's like to be a reporter, otherwise you wouldn't write such baseless comments. Lastly, show me one instance where I defamed the Hatboro Police Department. The definition of defamation is as follows: "false or unjustified injury of the good reputation of another." Nothing I've written has defamed the PD because it is all true. But, then again, if you really knew anything about being a reporter you'd know that.
jerseyjoe May 27, 2012 at 01:07 AM
Sounds like you really want this to be over? I’m sure that you are someone close to this sad situation possibly a coworker, friend or politician. To say that it was over a year ago is just not true but it dose sound like you knew about for a while. Is the reporter being overly aggressive with this story? I don’t know. Nonetheless it is news and the public has the right to know. The public also has the right to the truth and faith in their public servants. That faith has been damaged and needs to be restored. A rush to normalcy is not a repair and should be suspect of whitewash.
TwinkleToes May 27, 2012 at 01:25 AM
Theresa, First, this is not an attack on you. Simply pointing out a fact (which you have the unique ability to do with the patch unlike other reporters seemingly have with phillyburbs, msnnbc, etc) that you seem to get very defensive with this stuff and take it personally. Your job is one similar to a police officer, judge, lawyer, and even a teacher...you will never make everyone happy. If that is your intention, this profession is likely not a great choice for you. I don't use my real name because of my profession, but even if I did, Theresa, you wouldn't know me if we passed each other on the street. I am unsure why a name is necessary. Sorry that having a pseudo name (moniker) on a newsfeed comment is so offensive to you. My job (big picture - a touch of perspective here) is far more important than you knowing who I am, especially when it wouldn't help you regardless.
TwinkleToes May 27, 2012 at 01:51 AM
First, let me assure you that I do not befriend politicians. That's one rule I have, undoubtedly. Additionally, I am not a friend, relative, nor coworker of John Becker. I was just as shocked as you (likely, unless you are a friend, coworker, or politician) when it hit the paper that he was suspended in the first place. I have read and reread my initial comment and I am unsure why you are seemingly insinuating that this is the fault of the reporter? That IS her job. That's any news reporters' job. To me, the public has the right to know about any and every criminal, hence "public record". I am not doubting that at all. In fact, I wish all criminal complaints were as easy to find on the internet as the one of John Becker. It's an interesting read. I am not saying they should brush it under the carpet, as I am sure (read: my opinion) much has been over the years in Hatboro, instead I am saying that it's enough with the finger pointing about how the department failed him. He failed himself. He is suffering the consequences of his own choices. He has children and a family to face. He has a criminal record to now attempt to get a job with. He has the very likely chance of going to prison and being walked in knowing that others will find out he was a "dirty cop" (as someone said, but I don't know how). No one else needs blame. That won't help. What will help is realizing that this can happen with someone you TRUST so much. Kind of like, "Watch your back!"
Theresa Katalinas (Editor) May 27, 2012 at 02:04 AM
Twinkle Toes: My comment wasn't directed to you. Your comments weren't directed toward me, the other poster's were.
TwinkleToes May 27, 2012 at 02:14 AM
Thanks. JerseyJoe gave me the impression he thought I was attacking YOU, in which I wasn't.
jerseyjoe May 27, 2012 at 02:29 AM
For the life of me I can’t understand why you are diverting the accountability aspect of this. Not to be confused with blame. Yes becker admitted fault, that’s wonderful case closed. Wrong. Separate his culpability from failed procedures. Now ask yourself what went wrong? The extent of missing drugs, cash and guns over a prolonged amount of time. Wouldn’t this story be very different if becker was caught by the other custodian after a few pills or a few dollars were missing? Stop trying to minimize the lack of accountability.
TwinkleToes May 27, 2012 at 03:00 AM
Dear Lord Jersey Joe. Please tell me what is going to change if you blame the other custodian? Surely things COULD have changed. Things could have changed if the terrorists didn't board the planes on 9-11, too. Does it help to put a microscope on the people who allowed them to board EACH (not just one, as in this case) plane? No, instead they changed the procedures. Call me crazy, well, you don't need to - I can infer since I don't agree with you that I must be the crazy one, but THEY HAVE CHANGED THE PROCEDURES. If it didn't say so on the Patch, then it did on PhillyBurbs. Sometimes bad things happen before we realize there is something wrong with the process. Do you seriously believe that people (or even one person for that matter) knew about it and looked the other way? That's insane. Cops or not, friends or not, they would not have looked the other way if they knew stuff was missing. Come on! Do you "hear" yourself? For God's sake, why not just blame the pharmacutical companies for making the medication in the first place? Think of how much different the story would be then, right?
jerseyjoe May 27, 2012 at 03:18 AM
How do you know the procedures were changed? Maybe they did not need to be changed at all, just followed. You bore me. Go back to your pink cloud and image how great (sarcasm) life would be if nobody was held responsible for their actions. Cheers.
LoveThisLittleTown May 28, 2012 at 03:15 AM
Agree with Twinkle Toes. You gotta love the blame game! If the kid in school is bad, its MUST BE his parents fault! They "should have done this" or they "should have done that". It's not always the case. In a case such as Becker, why would anyone EVER even think he was doing the things he did! I could definitely understand if there was an employee who repeatedly was in trouble for one thing or another. Then, of course a supervisor (or in this case Chief of Police) should and would be keeping a watchful eye on that person. But a person with an almost impeccable working past of almost two decades? Why would any supervisor look to catch something like this going on? Be real people!
jerseyjoe May 28, 2012 at 02:01 PM
Anyone who truly loves this little town would not condone the ostrich approach to problem solving. Once again it is not about placing blame its about making sure all aspects of this or any problem have been resolved. I hope you did not raise you children with that philosophy? That eclectic style of parenting will only lead to more john beckers.
LoveThisLittleTown May 29, 2012 at 01:58 AM
JerseyJoe... You do not know me so please keep my family out of these comments! I was making an general example... kindly don't tell me how you hope i did not raise my kids!
Michael Cz May 29, 2012 at 02:52 AM
I believe what John Becker did was wrong and he should do his time for that, and hopefully rehab will get him clear of drugs. As for what the other officers knew about John's issues, we'll probably never know. This article does make a good point that drug addiction is a disease. The Drs. and Pharma company's are not entirely to blame for the pain killers, but I do think there should be a system in place to keep tabs on scripts being filled and monitoring/warnings for excessive use. This will not solve the problem but should help. Pain is very subjective, so not an easy task to limit these drugs for the few the need it. I really do not see this getter better unless there are some changes. If you are a physician, please comment as I would like to hear your thoughts on how this situation could possibly be prevented.
jerseyjoe May 29, 2012 at 09:55 PM
Care to edit this post? Or are you riding it down to the bottom? http://horsham.patch.com/articles/ex-cop-caused-2-vehicle-crashes
sunrise June 01, 2012 at 07:36 AM
I feel that,the entire Municipal System In Hatboro,needs a good house cleaning.Just a few months ago,there was a man arrested for allegedly hiring someone to hurt his exwife's brother and to do damage to the car of the ex-wife.The man,works for Hatboro Twnship as a Trash Collector.Any of these events could take place in any town,But please for such a small town,there should be better house keeping.I not know the out come of the case or if he is still working for the township,or will be if found guilty and gets slapped on the wrist.But in my opinion,there should be some sense that someone has to take a good look at the system they have in place now,and make some changes.
td July 10, 2012 at 04:57 PM
the chief should definityely be fired- if he didn't know then he is a poor chief ! He is either involved in the cover up for years of using our children as 'confidential informants' yet no one was ever arrested ...just so BEcker could get to use a girl and get more drugs or the worst chief ever. Go to the Hatboro police station- walk in the back where they 'work' - less than 10 men - filthy place- and don't know what the guy sitting a few feet from you is doing ? Isn't that the chiefs job? blind, incompetent or involved? Clean house !! there are drug deal in broad daylight in the police station back parking lot -/ train station every day and I know ! I told them in feb. and they have done NOTHING ... Becker will be in more trouble if the DA talks to a certain girl who was very friendly with Becker who was recently taken in (by WArminster- never Hatboro)

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