"Our cops are ticking time bombs for lack of sleep”

Comments from the field on officer fatigue

About the time we were transmitting our recent article on the need for on-shift naps (read You snooze you lose?), one of the nation’s foremost law enforcement risk managers was independently telling a standing-room crowd at the annual ILEETA training conference that fatigue is a life-threatening issue for street officers and that approved napping should be considered an on-duty necessity.

Risk and liability specialist Gordon Graham, an attorney and retired captain with the California Highway Patrol, claimed later in an interview with Force Science News that fatigue played a significant role in at least 3 officer deaths that he’s aware of in recent months — in just one state alone.

“Administrators won’t talk about it,” Graham says, “but our cops are ticking time bombs for lack of sleep.

“If a big rig runs off the road, we take that driver’s life apart for the previous few days, looking at his sleep log, among other things. But when something tragic happens with a cop, we don’t analyze for fatigue.

“Wouldn’t it be interesting to know how many hours of sleep officers have had before some of the controversial shootings that have rocked law enforcement? Or to correlate citizen complaints with officer fatigue?

“Fatigue is an identifiable risk. Let’s take responsibility and manage that risk.

“I’d like to see officers paid to take care of 3 basic needs while on duty: to eat, to nap, and to work out so they stay in better physical shape. This could be a negotiable issue with the unions. I’m convinced that all the positives would be up and that we’d save money in the long run.”

[Gordon Graham, who consults with agencies throughout the nation on liability issues, can be reached at: Ggraham@Lexipol.com]

In our report on fatigue and napping, which you can read here: we asked for comments. In this edition of Force Science News, we present a representative sampling of your responses, edited for clarity and brevity. The views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the writers’ employers.

Note: Police1 Members are encouraged to add their own comments below

Officer through the wringer: 3 different shifts in 1 week!

As the research continues to confirm the importance of adequate sleep, employers continue to ignore the implications. Police agencies are far and beyond the worst offenders, small agencies in particular.

I work in a 12-officer agency. My REGULAR schedule, not affected by other officers taking a sick day or holiday or overtime/court requirements, has me working AT LEAST 2 different shifts in the SAME week.

“Double backs,” with only 8 hours scheduled off between shifts (e.g., working an evening shift until midnight then having to be back at work at 8 AM) are the rule for every officer’s schedule. Given report time, commute time, getting ready for bed, sleeping, getting up and ready for work, that translates to about 4 hours of actual sleep.

A TYPICAL schedule for me is midnight, double back to an evening shift, another midnight, then double back again to another evening, then double back yet again to a day shift: All 3 shifts in 1 week, with 3 double backs and MAYBE 12 hours of total sleep--assuming your body isn’t so confused by the constantly variable schedule that you CAN sleep--and you’re so damn tired you can hardly think straight.

It isn’t safe, it isn’t smart, and it’s a miserable way to live. Officers are irritable and short with people, their productivity is quite lacking--but at least they’re not crashing their patrol cars into civilians.

Oh, wait…they are! When they’re not racking up citizen complaints for being rude.

Two factors perpetuate this pattern: One, there aren’t enough officers. Adding officers means more money, and small agencies simply do not have enough money. Second, the administrators and supervisors writing the schedules that affect all their officers work a straight day shift with weekends off. They lose track of what it means to be sleep deprived.

Forget sanctioned naps. When you have only 1 officer on duty, you want him to actually be awake for calls.

A Deputy from Texas

Snooze elsewhere

I agree with the need to catnap to recharge. However, if our brothers in blue are tired only because they have a second job, sleep on that one.

John Mertz
State Conservation Ofcr.
Knoxville, IA

Hours of no calls are unsafe

I would not agree to napping on the 3 PM to 11 PM shift but definitely on the midnight shift. It becomes unsafe when you have been driving around for 6 hours with little or no calls. If the call volume is high the fatigue does not seem to set in as much. But the slow nights make it very hard to stay awake.

Ofcr. Cliff Mahan
Guthrie (OK) PD

A compassionate department

My old department would let us come in for a 20- to 30-min. break and snooze. This did wonders, especially when things were slow, since I could only average 3-4 hours of sleep before work. Working 12-hr. shifts killed me.

A Force Science Reader

”We already have a tarnished image”

Officer fatigue is a valid argument for 2-person assignments. As a sergeant I notice I am less efficient when I have to drive and supervise. When I have a driver, my work is more efficient and I have more energy because I can rest while being driven.

Napping, however, is another matter and unacceptable in a world where we already have a tarnished image of not doing enough!

Sgt. Richard Aztlan
Chicago PD, Mass Transit

Have another cop watch over you

I have said to my officers on the 3rd watch (2100-0700) that I am not encouraging sleeping on duty, but I am a realist. I know it will happen, especially at the first couple of weeks into the shift change. Therefore, call your beat partner or me and have another cop park next to you while you catch a 30-min. nap.

I have done so myself. I find the short rest is very refreshing and will carry you alertly through the rest of the shift. I view this nap as healthy and possibly lifesaving, not only during your shift but afterward while you’re on your way home.

A Sergeant from California

The disruption of being “fair”

For a decade I worked a job with a shift of 24 hours on and 48 hours off. It took my body and brain nearly 2 years to become truly accustomed to this shift, and for me to learn coping strategies to deal with the issues this shift induced.

My local police department rotates officer shifts every 3 months, to be “fair” don’t you know. This is a huge mistake. I suspect officers may take 2 of the 3 months for their bodies, brains, and sleep and their family and social patterns to become mostly adapted to the new shift. Just as they’re getting into a rhythm, their department disrupts them all over again with a mandatory shift rotation.

Such departments must have a lot of officers operating at fractional potential much of the time, just because of this effort to be “fair.” If this disruptive practice has not been studied, it’s dang time it were.

Gary Marbut, president
Montana Shooting Sports Assn.
Missoula, MT

”A hard sell”

All of us know [napping] has gone on since the first night shift began. It’s human nature. Having trained your body to be awake in the day and asleep at night then telling it to do something totally to the contrary on changing intervals is not only very dangerous it’s unhealthy.

Still, I believe this is a hard sell to administrators who don’t have to deal with this issue themselves. Also not everyone can just fall asleep on command.

A Force Science Reader

Manpower demands override good intentions

I have been in LE for over 28 years and totally agree that sleep deprivation is a severe detriment to many officers. I average about 5 hours of sleep a night while working our day shift. Because my spouse works and my child is grown, I have the luxury of sleeping in on my days off, trying to make up for my lost sleep. However, I find that I am often fatigued at work, especially during the early morning hours and after the work day. Our shift pattern causes all shifts to work during some hours of darkness.

Over the years we have allowed, and even encouraged, officers to come to the station and take a snooze if they become over-tired. Unfortunately, even though our manning is higher than it has ever been, our calls for service have also increased to the point that allowing for a nap except under the most serious situations has become a thing of the past.

Until there’s a plan that allows for naps without causing a problem with response to calls, it’s coffee and supplements!

A Lieutenant from Florida

Swap food for sleep

If a lunch hour is in your shift hours, even half an hour, get permission to sleep your lunch break, and eat energy bars and fruit as you drive to replace a formal lunch.

Mike Hargreaves
CEO, Community Patrol, Inc.
Orlando, FL

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