NORTH CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - North Charleston's police chief is launching a new program designed to help any officer who may have a problem with alcohol.
Chief Jon Zumalt said the recent arrests of three officers who allegedly drove drunk may be a sign of a bigger problem.
Beginning Monday, chaplains with the Coastal Crisis Chaplaincy will be available to talk to any officer who needs help.
"We believe we've got an alcohol problem in our workforce and we're trying to figure out what has caused this sudden emergence of officers being arrested for DUI," Zumalt said.
Zumalt called a special meeting of his command staff Friday morning to talk about the issue he said has tarnished the great work of his department.
The chief said the January 29 arrest of officer Nicholas Lomma sounded the alarm.
The South Carolina Highway Patrol said Lomma was driving drunk when he crashed his patrol car in rural Colleton County. Lomma has since been fired.
Now the chief wants his commanders to help him get the word out to his rank and file. "The last thing they should be doing is drinking and driving," he said.
Zumalt said it's possible the stress of job or financial problems could cause officers to start drinking.
"The job's stressful. They see a lot of things and alcohol's not the way to handle it," he said.
The chaplains will suggest alternatives to alcohol. "Create a hobby for yourself to avoid the alcohol, drugs and other things that are un-Godly," said Chaplain Rob Dewey.
"We'll get busy Monday morning in getting out, trying to support our workforce and get to the bottom of this thing," added Zumalt.
Zumalt said officers will meet in small groups with chaplains so they will feel more comfortable. He said the process will take about two weeks.
Chief Zumalt released the following statement Friday afternoon:
Over the past several months we have experienced a very troubling trend. Officers have been arrested during their off duty time. As an agency we have done a terrific job of reducing crime in our city and gaining the trust and respect of the people we serve. These arrest incidents, however, damage public confidence in our agency and equally damaging, we are losing good officers that have contributed to the success of the department.
• Timothy Ramsey, Patrol Officer, arrested in Idaho, June 30, 2010 for DUI while off duty in his personal vehicle.
Plead guilty and was terminated from employment.
• Nicholas Lomma, Saturation Patrol Officer, arrested in Colleton County January 29, 2011 for DUI. He was off duty, driving a city vehicle after consuming alcohol, was involved in an accident and arrested for DUI. He was terminated from employment. DUI case still pending.
• Hampton Jenkins, Neighborhood Resource Officer, arrested in Colleton County December 30, 2010 for DUI while off duty in his personal vehicle. Currently on administrative duty pending the outcome of the DUI case.
• Tamara Ortiz-Negron, School Resource Officer, arrested in Summerville for Criminal Domestic Violence during an off duty incident with her husband. Currently on administrative duty pending the outcome of the CDV case.
We are at work right now to keep this from happening again. I have taken a firm approach by terminating 2 officers.
Additionally, on January 11, 2011, through a Special Order, I notified the department that if an employee is arrested, he/she will be suspended without pay pending the outcome of the criminal case.
While the firm steps deal with what has already happened we are working together to identify early warning signs to prevent this from happening again. We don't know what the root cause or causes are that have created this change in off duty employee behavior. What we do know is that we are in the midst of difficult economic times and the dangers associated with policing are increasing here and across the nation. Since the first of the year we have been taking proactive steps to counter this trend.
• In early January we reached out to the Human Resources Department and the Coastal Crisis Chaplaincy to identify resources that will help our employees deal with job stress, financial stress and family/personal problems.
• We are also exploring recreation opportunities to create team building and positive activities for off duty time.
• Effective February 7 the Chaplains along with our Police Major and Captains will be holding team meetings throughout the department to discuss ethics, responsibility and to educate our workers about the wide range of resources available to them.
• In the next step the Chaplaincy will provide more in-depth training on how to deal with family and personal issues.
• Next I will bring back financial management counselors to keep financial stress in check.
• We will continue with our Sergeant Leadership initiative to build the leadership capacity of our first line supervisors which will make them more effective in leading and supporting their officers.