Sense of Smell Essential to Police Work

Concluding that police officers cannot do their jobs if they cannot “smell out” crime, a Pennsylvania appellate court agreed that a Pennsylvania township police officer was totally disabled as a result of his losing his sense of smell.

The police officer was badly injured in a motorcycle accident while off duty. The injuries resulted in his completely losing his sense of smell. The officer returned to work after passing a physical examination, but the examining physician never asked about or tested the officer’s sense of smell. Several months after the officer resumed his duties, when township officials learned that he had no sense of smell, they issued an “honorable discharge,” effectively firing him.

When the officer objected, the township held a hearing and presented the testimony of an expert in law-enforcement employment.
The expert testified that police officers must be fully able to smell in order to quickly respond to fires, hazardous material spills, and natural gas and propane leaks. The expert also noted that first responders to DUI and drug violations regularly use their sense of smell. All of these events require instant action.

The injured officer argued that he could detect a DUI by observing the walk and behavior of a driver, and that he could observe fuel and gas emergencies by seeing smoke and by depending on other visual clues. He testified that no officers had complained to him about his lack of sense of smell and further suggested that there were other duties he could perform without being dismissed.

But several township employees testified that the officer did experience problems on his return to work. One fellow officer noted that the injured officer was the first on the scene of a DUI accident but was not able to smell alcohol on the unconscious driver, while the fellow officer noted it right away. Another witness described an incident in which the injured officer assisted an elderly township resident with her malfunctioning furnace by adjusting it and restarting it. Had the furnace malfunction been related to a gas leak, the injured officer’s restarting the furnace might have caused a destructive explosion.

The township hearing board upheld the discharge, and the injured officer lost on appeal. Many workers’ job performances are  unrelated to their sense of smell. But, for law enforcers and other first responders, an actual smell test is often an essential part of quick and safe decision making.

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