High levels of a performance enhancing substance killed a 41-year-old Niagara regional police officer in 2005 during a rigorous fitness tryout for the force’s emergency tactical unit, CBC News has learned.

The death prompted a coroner to call for tougher drug screening of police officers, including the potential for laboratory drug testing.

Dr. David Eden, a regional supervising coroner for operations with the Ontario coroner's office, called for action after a coroner's report found Const. Daniel Rathonyi died on Sept. 15, 2005, from sudden cardiac death  "in association with the toxic effects of ephedrine and caffeine" during an intense tryout at Notre Dame College in Welland, Ont., according to his report obtained by CBC News.

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Const. Daniel Rathonyi died from sudden cardiac death "in association with the toxic effects of ephedrine and caffeine" during an intense tryout at Notre Dame College in Welland, Ont., according to his coroner's report. (Niagara Regional Police Services)

The recommendation made in 2006 came at the very time Niagara Regional Police Service (NRPS) supervisors were confronted with evidence suggesting some members of the emergency tactical unit (ETU) were buying, trafficking and using anabolic steroids  — risking health and criminal sanction — to maintain peak strength to keep their spots on the elite unit.

The NRPS is currently conducting an internal probe after one of their constables was arrested this spring in the United States and charged with conspiracy to smuggle more than half a million dollars worth of steroids and other drugs from the U.S. into Canada. 

Officer’s widow decries physical demands of ETU

Months after Rathnoyi’s death, the coroner recommended the NRPS hire a medical expert to beef up risk assessment and screening of officers to prevent future deaths, possibly including drug testing. 

The officer’s widow, Agnes Rathonyi, says her late husband told her he was taking ephedrine in diet pills  for a short time to keep his weight down and to "give him a boost" for his ETU tryout.

She shared the coroner’s report and recommendations with CBC News after reading previous stories about steroid allegations involving Niagara regional police’s ETU.  She says she wanted to make them public – including the coroner’s recommendation letter addressed to NRPS Insp. Lorne Lillico – in the hope that some good can come out of her husband’s death so many years later.

"I can’t believe he didn’t come home," said Rathonyi, adding she is haunted by her "beautiful" husband’s death. She also questions the culture of hyperfitness in the ETU and the tryout requirements, which she says were "extreme."

Earlier this month, CBC News revealed allegations that some members of the ETU in 2005 and 2006 were taking, buying and sharing steroids. Rathonyi does not believe her husband was on steroids, but she said he was zealous in his workouts in his bid to become as fit as the members of that unit.

The coroner concluded the combination of caffeine, ephedrine and extreme exercise caused Daniel Rathonyi’s death. Ephedrine is not illegal, but it is a controlled substance. Health Canada has warned of the potentially fatal risk of taking it in combination with extreme exercise and caffeine, which enhance its effects.

Dr. Eden recommended in his letter that the NRPS "should consult with a person with appropriate medical expertise to review policy for risk assessment (for example by medical history, physical examination and or appropriate laboratory tests) of candidates for positions in which prolonged peak exercise is a job requirement."

The NRPS refused to reveal the ETU fitness tryout requirements to the CBC.  But the police service says following the coroner’s recommendation it hired a cardiologist and adopted a written pretest screening questionnaire for officers to sign before intense training.  To date, NRPS does no drug screening.

In an interview with CBC News, Dr. Eden says examining Rathonyi ’s death was important because the officer appeared to be in top physical condition. He says he did not ask the NRPS for a formal response to his recommendation and says he was never consulted further.

Police unions across Canada fight drug testing of officers

Drug testing of any kind – be it for illicit narcotics or performance enhancing drugs – is controversial in policing. In 2003, the late Justice George Ferguson delivered an anti-corruption report into a scandal involving Toronto drug squad officers.  He recommended drug testing "for anyone seeking promotion into high risk units such as drug squads, emergency tactical units, major crime units or internal affairs."

Toronto Police Association head Mike McCormack said those recommendations were never heeded. He says there was no need to adopt "invasive" urine or blood testing of officers because Toronto enhanced its supervision of officers to look out for signs of addiction or corruption.

Niagara regional police union president Paul DiSimoni says the officers he represents, like most across the country, have written into their collective agreements explicit prohibitions on any drug testing. The NRPS contract states "the parties agree to defer the issue of drug testing of members until the legality of the matter is finally determined in the Province of Ontario," and if it is, they’ll take it up in the next bargaining session.

A spokesman for the Ontario Ministry of Community Safety says the province does not have any legislation, regulation or policy that specifically deals with drug testing of police officers, and leaves it up to individual forces.

In Canada, jobs that require some form of drug testing include the Canadian military, some bus and truck drivers (especially those who travel to the U.S.), railway workers,  oil patch employees, construction workers in B.C., and those in the pulp and paper industry.

In March, the Supreme Court of Canada agreed to hear a case that challenges the right of the pulp and paper industry to demand alcohol testing. The hearing, which is expected to examine issues around employee screening regimes, should begin this fall.

Critics say there are three main reasons for drug testing of police officers:  protection of their health, screening of corruption or criminality should they indulge in illegal drugs, and for public safety to ensure officers are not under the influence or on steroids and potentially prone to ‘roid rage, especially when they carry guns, Tasers and are authorized to use force.

Eugene Oscapella, an Ottawa lawyer, criminology professor and a founding member of the Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy, says in general he is opposed to employee drug testing.

But he says it may be appropriate in policing for drug squads, where there are examples from around the world of cases where criminals have corrupted officers who routinely are undercover and dealing with narcotics.  He notes the rare case of the police union in New South Wales, Australia, which has spoken out in favour of drug testing of its members as an effort to enhance public confidence.

But Oscapella says for other employers the practice of widespread drug testing has run amok, particularly in the United States where he says a multi-billion dollar drug testing industry has developed with mixed results in terms of detection and efficacy.

Oscapella says 250 Canadian soldiers were prevented from serving in Afghanistan in 2006 because they tested positive for drugs. On the other hand, Britain went to the bother of testing 13,000 or so officers over the last two years, and only 25 tested positive.

In Canada, he says it would be interesting to test police officers anonymously, "to determine if it’s a problem we need to address."

Send any tips to John Nicol and Dave Seglins.