Another danger of the night

I preferred the night shift because there was great camaraderie among the ranks – but I paid the price for being a night owl

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A study out of the University of Iowa showed that cops who work nights instead of days don’t get enough sleep. That sound you’re now hearing is the entire graveyard shift law enforcement community responding, “Ya think?” 

I spent the last six years of my police career working the overnight or graveyard shift. At the time, this was a department record (it has since been broken several times). I petitioned for a black hash mark when I hit four years, but got the expected response. We bid for shifts every six months, and I had enough seniority to get any shift I wanted. I preferred the night shift because most of the cops were relatively new and eager to work, as opposed to the day shift dinosaurs who were putting in their time until retirement doing the absolute minimum they could get by with.

There was less traffic, calls were less frequent but still interesting, and there was great camaraderie among the ranks.

I preferred the night shift because most of the cops were relatively new and eager to work.
I preferred the night shift because most of the cops were relatively new and eager to work. (Photo/PoliceOne)

This was offset by chronic fatigue and the maladies that went with it.

In theory, there were 14 off-duty hours between end of watch and the start of the next one, but any day you got that was the exception, not the rule. Court appearances, personal business, telemarketers and one particular deputy city attorney who regarded me as her personal oracle on police procedure saw to it that my sleep was nearly always interrupted.

I know now by comparison that this schedule made me more than just tired.

I normally enjoy pretty good health. During those years, I would be too ill to come to work, usually with some kind of respiratory infection, at least three times a year. There were also many days I came in when I probably should have stayed home. During one extended siege when I had some bug that would not die, my voice got so froggy that our dispatchers couldn’t recognize it on the radio. Since then, I’ve been that ill maybe three or four times – in more than 20 years.

The study from the College of Nursing at the University of Iowa confirmed my experience. Researchers surveyed 85 male officers ranging in age from 22 to 63 years old, working at three law enforcement agencies in eastern Iowa. Half of the officers worked the day shift; the rest were night owls.

The graveyard guys typically got less than six hours of sleep each day, and often suffered “vital exhaustion,” or what we referred to as being “too tired to sleep.”

Some of the sleep interruptions, such as daytime doorbell ringers and personal business, can’t always be avoided, but law enforcement agencies could be doing more to help their officers get more sleep. Court appearances are a common interruption, and most of them can be scheduled for either the last day of an officer’s workweek (so he has the entire days-off cycle to recover) or in the morning, so he can go directly from work to court and get the appearance out of the way.

Courts, rather than law enforcement agencies, generally schedule these, and there may be political barriers to getting their cooperation. One argument in favor of controlling scheduling is that it reduces overall costs, as well-rested officers become ill less often and cost the employer less in sick time usage and health insurance premiums.

The cops themselves can also be their own worst enemies here. Many cops have second jobs they work in their off-hours, and burn the candle at both ends. Off-duty employment needs to be recognized and controlled. Police pay varies tremendously from one part of the country to another, but most cops can make a livable wage from their primary employment. Too often, the extra cash is going to pay for the boat or the touring motorcycle that the cop might not get to live to enjoy.

As for telemarketers, an officer quite senior to me revealed a remedy that hadn’t occurred to me before. I was waiting for briefing to start and trying to clear the cobwebs out of my head when I absently complained about the aluminum siding salesman who had awakened me earlier in the day.

My colleague looked over and asked, “Why did you think the department issued you a police whistle?”

This article, originally published 08/07/2012, has been updated.

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