Death of a Patrolman: A Preventable Accident

Thursday, November 1st, 2012

Last week, thousands of mourners gathered on Long Island for the funeral of Nassau County police officer Joseph Olivieri.  Four days earlier, Officer Olivieri had been killed on the L.I.E. while investigating a crash caused by an alleged drunk driver. Responding to the predawn wreck, he had gotten out of his cruiser when a passing SUV fatally struck him.

Olivieri’s death is a tragedy for everyone involved.  He leaves behind two children, as well as a cadre of close colleagues and friends, for whom he was irreplaceable. The incident is also tragic for 25-year-old James Ryan and his family. Ryan has been charged with vehicular manslaughter, driving while intoxicated, and other crimes that set off the chain of events that led to Olivieri’s demise. Regardless of whether Ryan is convicted of manslaughter, he will have to live with the consequences of his fateful decision to drink and drive.

At this point, we don’t know whether Ryan has a drinking problem—or if his behavior in this case was an isolated incident. But one has to wonder whether his reckless actions could have been prevented. What if he had been screened as a teen and identified as being at-risk for substance misuse?  What if he had then received counseling that helped him modify his risky behavior?  Are there any interventions that could have stopped him from getting behind the wheel while intoxicated?

We can’t change the course of events for Ryan, but we can strive to prevent other young people from making the same mistakes.  68 million Americans are classified as “harmful drinkers,” meaning they consume five or more drinks in one sitting. And often, problematic drinking begins in adolescence or early adulthood.  According to SAMHSA, in 2010, 41 percent of young people aged 18 to 25 engaged in binge drinking. We know that if a person reaches the age of 21 without developing a substance abuse problem, he or she is unlikely to develop one in the future.  For this reason, it’s critical that we stop dangerous drinking and drug use before it starts.

This is the aim of our prevention and education services, which we provide at schools, hospitals, speakers’ bureaus, and other community settings across the country. Through these educational presentations, we give adolescents practical tools to help them avoid drugs and alcohol.  Our hope is that we’ll be able to reduce teens’ risk of substance abuse before they harm themselves or someone else.

In addition to prevention and education, we must also make substance abuse screening and referral to treatment part of mainstream medical care.  As we’ve written in the past, addiction treatment has historically been outside the realm of conventional healthcare.  Only a small percentage of American physicians are trained in addiction medicine.  For this reason, screening is not routine—and doctors often fail to identify or diagnose substance abuse in their patients.  This is beginning to change, thanks to healthcare reform, but we must do more to bridge the gap between the more than 23 million Americans who need substance abuse treatment and the less than ten percent who receive it.

Currently, there are far too many young people and adults whose problematic drinking or drug use goes undetected until a serious accident occurs. 18 percent of fatally injured drivers test positive for at least one drug—and drunk-driving fatalities account for 32 percent of all traffic deaths.  The overall number of traffic accidents has declined over the past decade, but there’s still more work to be done.

At Olivieri’s funeral, police union president James Carver said the officer’s death should serve as a statement to drivers: “Slow down and make sure you’re aware of what’s going on in front of you.”  But I believe this tragedy should also inspire action off the road.  We have a responsibility to get at-risk young people the help they need—before it’s too late.

Howard Meitiner
President & CEO, Phoenix House

If you or a loved one needs help for substance abuse, call us today at 1 888 671 9392 or send us an email. 

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