Big Guns: When Cops Use Steroids
Steroid Abuse Can Contribute to Police Brutality -- Even Murder
By MARC LALLANILLA
May 24, 2005
Amid the furor over steroid use by superstar athletes like baseball's Jose Canseco and Jason Giambi, another story is quietly unfolding in small towns and big cities across America -- cops on steroids.
From New York City to Norman, Okla., police departments are investigating a growing number of incidents involving uniformed police officers who are using steroids to build beefy, muscular physiques.
Police departments are concerned because it is illegal in the United States to possess steroids without a prescription. They are listed by the Drug Enforcement Agency as a Schedule III substance, like morphine, opium, barbiturates and other prescription drugs.
But there is an even greater problem: violent, aggressive behavior, a common side effect of steroids, can contribute to police brutality -- even murder.
When Police Commit Murder
James Batsel IV was a police officer in Riverdale, a suburb of Atlanta. In 1993, he joined a group of police officers who, in addition to bulking up on steroids, burglarized stores and nightclubs in the Atlanta area.
During one of those burglaries, Batsel shot and killed a nightclub owner. In his defense, Batsel blamed the murder on the steroids he was using.
Batsel, now serving a life sentence for murder at Hays State Prison in Georgia, refused an interview request from ABCNews.com. But his father, James Batsel III, said, "The police force that he was on was rampant with it."
Maj. Greg Barney of the Riverdale Police Department declined to offer comment on the 12-year-old incident.
Batsel also described the effect steroids had on his son's disposition, causing him to fly into a violent rage for no reason. This side effect of steroids is known as "'roid rage."
"He had a temper you would not believe," Batsel's father said. "He had a dog that he just loved -- and he took that dog out and shot it."
A Nationwide Epidemic of Abuse
Batsel's use of steroids is not a rare case. In precinct houses and sheriff's departments nationwide, officers are being investigated, disciplined, discharged or arrested for possessing or using steroids:
Michael Tweedy, a former police officer in Petersburg, Va., was sentenced in April for repeatedly stomping a man in the head while he lay on the ground choking on his own blood. In court testimony, steroid use was cited as a contributing factor to his violent behavior.
Thomas Lahey, a third-generation police sergeant in Denver, was charged in 2003 with possession of steroids. In addition to steroids, his home also contained syringes, a steroid-use schedule and 15 guns. The case was eventually dismissed.
Matthew Campbell, a former police officer in Tampa, pleaded guilty to trading Ecstasy tablets -- stolen from an impounded car -- for steroids. The exchange took place in 2000 while Campbell and a fellow officer were in uniform and on duty.
Two police officers in Tampa are under investigation as customers of a man arrested for selling steroids. The case is still under review by the police department.
Four police officers in the New York City area lost their jobs after being investigated for possession of steroids and cocaine in 2002. Two of the officers pleaded guilty; the other two cases are still pending.
Eight sheriff's deputies in Broward County, Fla., are currently under investigation after their names appeared on the customer list of a local company charged with distributing steroids.
Robert Cissna, a police officer in Burlingame, Calif., pleaded no contest to possession of steroids in 2002. He has since been reinstated as a police officer.
The full extent of the problem remains unknown -- most police officers and department spokespersons are reluctant to discuss any internal affairs involving police officers using steroids or other drugs.
Aggressive Behavior and Loaded Guns
There is a scientific explanation for the violent behavior exhibited by steroid abusers, says Linn Goldberg, a professor of medicine at Oregon Health & Science University and an expert on steroid abuse.
"Your dopamine receptors are changed," he said, referring to the chemical in the brain that transmits nerve signals. "They help guard against a lack of impulse control."
Steroid abusers lack the same level of control that non-users have. "They have uncontrolled aggressive feelings. Their judgment is impaired," Goldberg said.
"The problem with steroids is that they make you feel you are invulnerable, so you become more aggressive and you're more likely to use aggression as well," he added.
Other side effects of steroid abuse include depression, mania, suicide risks, erratic mood swings, shrunken testicles, cancerous tumors, kidney failure, heart attacks, stroke and stunted growth.
But the fact that violent mood swings can occur among police officers who carry a gun concerns many, including Goldberg. "It's very scary to me," he said.
Fear Factor and the Police
Gene Sanders, a police psychologist in Spokane, Wash., has worked extensively with police officers who are steroid abusers.
"If I were going to be conservative, I'd say that probably five percent of everyone who walks in my door either is using or has used steroids. This is getting to be a major problem," Sanders said.
"As a police psychologist, I can understand why it happens -- it's essentially a fear issue," said Sanders.
"And having been a sniper on a SWAT team, I can understand that level of fear," he said.
'When I Started to Use Anabolic Steroids'
It was fear that prompted rookie officer Chris Holden to begin using steroids.
Shortly after joining the police force in Norman, Okla., an Oklahoma highway patrolman was shot and killed. The slaying occurred during a fight in which the killer wrestled the patrolman's gun away from him.
"I wanted to do everything I could to prevent this from happening to me," Holden stated in a letter he published in a local newspaper. "At the end of March 2004 I was a police officer patrolling the streets solo, and that is when I started to use anabolic steroids."
An investigation into steroid abuse, led by the DEA, netted Holden, three other Norman police officers, and a state highway patrolman. All five lost their jobs following the investigation.
Holden failed to return several calls requesting an interview, and many of Holden's former colleagues have taken a dim view of his actions.
"One interesting effect of him writing that letter is he alienated the entire department when he wrote that letter [to the local newspaper]," said Lt. Tom Easley, spokesman for the Norman Police Dept.
"Most of these guys and women who are out there on the force took his letter as evidence of cowardice and some kind of inadequacy in himself," Easley said.
"When you have 130 authorized police officers and you lose four of them, it hurts from a manpower standpoint and it hurts from a morale standpoint," said Easley.
But like many other police spokespeople around the country, Easley acknowledges that a handful of arrests will not end the nationwide problem of steroid abuse by cops.
Referring to the four Norman police officers who lost their jobs, he said, "It's not an isolated incident."