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Cops feeling fatigued: There’s a nap for that

Viral photos of two cops napping in their cruiser offer reminders of the officer safety issues stemming from the fatal fatigue of shift work

Two police officers in Indiana were recently spotted napping in their police cruiser. Photographs were snapped and posted to social media. The chief was informed. Pronouncements were made.

“We’re aware of it and we’re going to launch an internal investigation and in all likelihood, there’ll be some discipline,” Richmond Police Chief Jim Branum said.

The original Facebook post garnered dozens of comments. Some expressed support for the officers, many others criticized them.

Admittedly, two coppers taking a two-hour snooze in a cemetery is a pretty terrible look. As soon as something like this hits the Internet, there’s a high probability it will go viral with criticism from citizens who know very little about the rigors of shift work.

They see two cops sleeping in their car and light up social media with comments.

However, lost in the hullabaloo of the discussion are the obvious officer safety concerns. With ambush attacks happening across the country, taking a nap in a public place is ill-advised.

But the deeper officer safety concern is the fact that these two guys were sufficiently fatigued to need that sleep in the first place.

The debilitating impacts of sleep deprivation

Numerous studies have shown police officers to be among the most sleep-deprived workers in the United States. Shifts can last 12 to 16 hours, with overtime heaped on top of that on a regular basis.

Cops have to remain in a heightened state of situational awareness for the duration of that time and will be called upon to answer physically and emotionally strenuous situations a number of times during any given shift.

There is a systemic problem here, and it’s not a new one. Ten years ago, risk and liability specialist Gordon Graham – an attorney and retired captain with the California Highway Patrol – told Force Science Institute, “Our cops are ticking time bombs for lack of sleep.”

Ten years prior to that, a sleep-deprivation study conducted by scientists Drew Dawson and Kathryn Reid said that “Poor-quality sleep and inadequate recovery leads to increased fatigue, decreased alertness and impaired performance in a variety of cognitive psychomotor tests.”

Dawson and Reid found that not sleeping for 17 hours impaired a person’s motor skills as much as someone who tests at 0.05 percent blood alcohol content (BAC). Not sleeping for 24 hours is equivalent to a BAC level of 0.10 percent.

As David Blake stated in this Police1 article, “There is no shortage of proof that police officers are working fatigued – evidenced by the sometimes fatal errors that occur as a result.”

There’s a nap for that

Those in law enforcement sometimes make fun of their brothers and sisters in the fire service for their Lazy-Boy chairs, big-screen televisions and giant kitchens.

“They eat ‘till they’re sleepy and sleep ‘till they’re hungry,” cops jest.

But they’ve got it right. They’ve figured out how to minimize fatigue and the associated risks. Police should be mimicking (not mocking) this practice.

Dr. Richard Shane is a behavioral sleep therapist who has conducted numerous studies and authored articles on the topic. He has helped thousands of people resolve their sleep problems – from mild and occasional to severe insomnia. He also instructs police officers and other first responders on how to get the most out of their sleep.

Shane told Police1, “Shiftwork, long hours and stress can interfere with sleep and leave the police officer fatigued, which can impede effectiveness and safety. More corporations and some police departments are allowing personnel to take a 30-minute nap. In a NASA study, pilots who had a planned rest period had a 34 percent increase in performance and a 54 percent increase in alertness.”

Shane added, “Napping in a patrol car is not safe, but some police departments are providing safe rooms for restorative naps.”

Earlier this year, we reported on a police department in Virginia that is now allowing its officers to take advantage of what they call “quiet rooms” located in three different spots in the city of Hampton.

The rooms – furnished with recliners, futons and televisions – are a securely protected environment where officers can “take their belt off, turn their radio off, close the door, turn off the lights, and just get some rest,” Corporal Reggie Williams told a local news station.

Only one officer can use a room at a time and they may only use it during their lunch break.

The agency modeled their rooms – and the associated policy on how and when they are used – after a program in Henderson, Nevada.

Henderson PD implemented the Restorative Rest Program in January 2016, providing four secure rooms inside four different undisclosed locations in the city of Henderson, where officers can safely nap while on duty to “fuel a revival of mental awareness.”

When an officer wants to use one of the rooms, he or she can ask to be “dispatched” there and, upon supervisor approval, rest for an hour or less of their allocated lunch break.

Fighting fatal fatigue

Fatigue impairs a person’s mental functioning, especially in areas such as decision-making, reaction time, and memory. A 2014 study conducted by David Blake and Edward Cumella addressed the effect of fatigue on officers’ decision-making and reaction times when faced with deadly-force situations.

Blake and Cumella found that many fatigue measures correlated strongly with officers’ impaired decision-making and slowed reaction times within deadly force situations. In particular, poor sleep quality, greater total time awake, more days worked and working night or swing shifts all decreased the accuracy of officers’ decisions to “shoot or don’t shoot” and slowed their reaction times.

Airline pilots and long-haul truck drivers can have a direct influence on the safety and well-being of the general public. As a result, each has rules and regulations regarding the amount of rest (non-work hours) that exists between work hours or shifts.

The United States Air Force encourages the practice of one pilot managing the flight while the other takes a nap. Then the two switch. This keeps them fresh and alert for those long flights with multiple in-flight refueling.

Doctors working long shifts in hospital emergency rooms have what they call an on-call room (sometimes referred to as a surgeon’s mess) in which they have access to a bed in a quiet space.

These seem like reasonable policies that can be imitated by law enforcement.

“Fatigue is an identifiable risk,” Gordon Graham once said. “Let’s take responsibility and manage that risk.”

Fatigue-mitigating measures can be enacted using simple adjustments. On-duty nap rooms such as those in Hampton and Henderson are a great idea. Agencies can also re-evaluate overtime rules and total work hours, and consider less-frequent shift rotations.

Too many cops are tired. Tired people make mistakes. Mistakes in this business can be catastrophic.

Taking meaningful steps to address fatigue among officers is long overdue.

Related resources

Click here to learn about how to get more and better sleep off duty.

Click here to contact Dr. Richard Shane for a 10-minute sleep assessment.

Doug Wyllie writes police training content on a wide range of topics and trends affecting the law enforcement community. Doug was a co-founder of the Policing Matters podcast and a longtime co-host of the program.

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