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When cops are addicts: Pharmacy robbery sheds rare light on drug abuse among first responders

Longtime San Francisco police Sgt. Davin Cole made a living helping people who struggle with drug addiction. Then he allegedly walked into a pharmacy, and handed over a note demanding prescription painkillers.

"I have a gun give me Norco do not push alarm!!  Hurry!!" the note read. "Sorry!! Doctors f'd me up wait 15 min to call cops. We'll be watch.”

Cole, a 27-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department, was arrested by San Mateo police after leaving the Rite Aid drug store, prosecutors said. He has since pleaded not guilty to robbery and gun charges.

His arrest stunned other officers on the force, who described Cole as a straight shooter assigned to a homeless response team. It was the culmination of a lengthy struggle with substance abuse that he battled in secret for more than a decade after being bitten by a police dog and prescribed painkillers, according to his defense attorney.

“There were no signs that he had demons,” said Tony Montoya, president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association, who has known Cole for three decades. “He did an excellent job hiding what he was trying to suppress.”

Cole is not the first officer to wind up behind bars while battling drug addiction. In 2018 and 2019, a then-suspended San Francisco police officer, Rain Daugherty, was accused of robbing two banks and stealing from his elderly neighbor. During sentencing in federal court, his supporters asked for leniency, saying that Daugherty had become “addicted to an evil poison.”

News of the latest arrest has raised questions about whether enough is being done to protect the public from officers who might be struggling with drug addiction.

The SF Police Department is known for offering robust, confidential support services to officers. Yet some in the law enforcement community say the stigma attached to officers seeking help prevents many from coming forward. And the fact that the SFPD—unlike the SF Fire Department and police forces in other cities—does not conduct random drug testing means that addicted officers are unlikely to be found out. 

Substance abuse among police officers and other first responders, who inevitably face very stressful situations on the job, is an issue nationwide.

Yulanda Williams, president of Officers for Justice, an employee association that represents Black officers in San Francisco, said the department should consider implementing random drug testing—especially considering that substance abuse issues appear to be a “little bit more frequent” within the ranks.

“Based on the powers that we have on the job and the fact that we are carrying equipment that could cause severe damage or loss of life, I think that we have to be held to a far higher standard,” Williams said.

Montoya described the unrelated arrests of Cole and Daugherty as “isolated” incidents. He said the police union would not “outright oppose” random drug testing, but cautioned that the “devil is in the details.”

The SFPD did not respond to a request for comment. An attempt to reach Cole through his attorney was not successful.

Downward Spiral

It all started for Cole back in 2010, when a police dog bit his leg during a training exercise, according to his defense attorney, Tony Brass. The injury was so severe that it required surgery and Cole left the hospital with a prescription for an opioid painkiller called Norco.

“It started him down the road,” Brass said. “He was on very, very high doses.”

Cole was later promoted to sergeant and assigned to the Healthy Streets Operations Center, where Brass said he earned a reputation for having a “great deal of empathy and sympathy.” At the same time, Cole was taking more painkillers than prescribed for his years-old injury, according to his attorney.

“Like all addicts, he was in the process of quitting for years,” Brass said. “But he did keep himself in a very high-functioning state.”

Sgt. Davin Cole | Photo courtesy SFPD

Brass would not say how Cole fed his addiction, but said “no one officially discovered that he was using and he was addicted.”

That changed on the evening of Nov. 3, when Cole walked into a Rite Aid at 666 Concar Dr. wearing a hoodie over his head, sunglasses and a face mask, according to San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe. He allegedly handed an employee at the pharmacy the threat letter, and left the store with 11 bottles of Norco painkillers, which would have cost $919 if purchased directly from the pharmacy.

Prosecutors say Cole initially ran when police tried to stop him. Eventually he stopped and was taken into custody after being threatened with a stun gun. While being detained, Cole allegedly began to scream in frustration.

“I'm an off-duty cop,” Cole yelled, according to Wagstaffe. “My life is fucked up.”

Wagstaffe said police found an unregistered revolver in his waistband.

Drug Testing & Stigma

Currently, the San Francisco Police Department only drug tests officers in limited circumstances, such as when an officer is hired, promoted or involved in an on-duty collision resulting in death or serious injury. Officers can also be tested if a supervisor suspects they are on drugs or alcohol while on the job.

The department does not require drug testing after officers are involved in critical incidents like police shootings.

By comparison, other first responder agencies have much more aggressive drug-testing policies. 

The San Jose Police Department, for example, may require drug testing for officers who injure or kill another person. While a spokesperson for the department said it does not do random drug testing, its police union contract allows for randomly testing officers on specific assignments, such as undercover narcotics operations.

The Los Angeles Police Department has an extensive random drug testing program; all new hires are randomly tested up to six times during their probation period, while all tenured officers are randomly drug tested up to three times a year.

In San Francisco, firefighters are subjected to random drug testing. A spokesperson for the San Francisco Fire Department said three to five of its members are randomly tested for drugs and alcohol every weekday.

Not everyone agrees that random drug testing should be part of the solution to addiction among cops. 

Dr. Ellen Kirschman, a police and public safety psychologist who has worked with the San Francisco Police Department and is based in Redwood City, said instituting random drug testing sounds like a “terrible idea.” In addition to taking issue with officers being tested without cause, Kirschman said random testing could further drive a wedge between police supervisors and the rank-and-file.

“You have enough trouble getting line officers and management to be on the same page about things,” Kirschman said. “This would only make it worse.”

However, Kirschman said there could be a place for random testing as a rehabilitation tool for officers with a history of addiction.

Both Kirschman and Joe Alioto Veronese, a former San Francisco police commissioner, fire commissioner and police officer, pointed to the stigma associated with first responders seeking help for addiction as a bigger problem that needs to be addressed.

“The mentality is that we need to be the hero in the room and not ask for help,” said Alioto Veronese, who started the National First Responders Fund to connect first responders with services.

He was surprised to learn that the San Francisco Police Department does not require drug testing after a police shooting.

New Policies

At present, the San Francisco Police Department has not updated its drug testing policy for nearly three decades, since 1994. Most of the drug testing requirements are instead enshrined in its police contract.

When asked for her position on random drug testing, Police Commission President Malia Cohen said that the SFPD’s drug testing policy is among dozens of old policies in the process of being revised.

"We cannot enable a situation where our officers, who are in a position of public trust, do not get the help that they need to overcome difficulties in life, including substance abuse," Cohen said.

As for Cole, he was placed on unpaid leave after his arrest pending the outcome of an internal investigation. He is facing four counts of felony robbery, two felony gun charges and a misdemeanor resisting arrest charge, according to authorities. He posted $50,000 bail and has checked into a residential treatment program.

He is due back in court for a preliminary hearing on Feb. 7.