State your case: Should police departments implement 48-hour shifts?

A discussion about the pros and cons of law enforcement adopting a fire service shift model


The City of Kittitas, Washington, recently implemented a 48-hour shift schedule where officers work two 24-hour days on duty, followed by four days off. Their approach was quickly followed by the Jonesville Police Department in Michigan. 

“This model is being used in the (state of) Washington and is successful,” Kurt Etter, director of the Jonesville Department of Public Services said. “The officer has built in downtime similar to the fire service. The flexibility this schedule gives allows a smaller department to compete with larger agencies for the same small group of applicants.” 

But could this shift schedule work across law enforcement agencies? Read our columnists' take on this issue and share your opinions below.

Could a fire service shift schedule of two 24-hour days on duty, followed by four days off, work for law enforcement?
Could a fire service shift schedule of two 24-hour days on duty, followed by four days off, work for law enforcement? (Getty Images)

The ground rules: As in an actual debate, the pro and con sides are assigned randomly as an exercise in critical thinking and analyzing problems from different perspectives.

Our debaters: Jim Dudley, a 32-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department where he retired as deputy chief of the Patrol Bureau, and Chief Joel Shults, EdD, who retired as chief of police in Colorado.

Joel Shults: One of the prominent trainers I’ve been privileged to know, I can’t remember who and they probably stole it anyway, said cops only complain about two things: the way things are and change. We talk about innovation, re-imagining and the “r” word (reform), but major shifts from doing what has always been done, like the proverbial battleship turning around, take a long time and many miles. Toying with shift work models is worth the experiment.

There are only two questions about shift scheduling. One is whether the work can get done, and the other is whether the workers have the capacity to do the work. If scheduling is created with only one of those in mind, the other necessarily suffers.

Station living on a 48-hour schedule of availability seems to have some clear advantages, the greatest of which is recovery time during non-working days. The hours or days that it takes to normalize the body and mind of police officers is probably much longer than most of us think. Time for restorative relaxation, getting chores done, having quantity and quality time with loved ones, eating normally, and allowing body chemistry to recover from the constant adrenaline drip is a work/life cycle most can live with.

Research shows police officers have a shorter life expectancy than the general population. Other studies show that firefighters fare much better at living past retirement than cops do. Although there are a lot of variables that make comparing these professions irrelevant, the scheduling and lifestyle comparisons persist. Work schedules may be one of those things that slowly kills cops. If the 48-hour police shift works toward a healthier mind and body, we won’t have statistical evidence for several decades. But why not try?

Jim Dudley: I know a lot of cops who would just love to live the firefighters’ life: 48-hour shifts, workouts, cooking, big screen televisions and lounge chairs. But seriously, the idea of an officer working a 48-hour shift would not work in most cases. The story that hails the 48-hour shifts as a success is a department of five individuals. I didn’t see the town population, or any estimation of calls for service over a 24-hour period, but in most places, those numbers would cause an exhausted cadre of personnel.

Sure, approximately 75% of all departments in the US average 25 officers or less, but there are patrols, checks and calls for service that keep officers on the streets. In a large metropolitan city, some officers are lucky to catch breaks and a meal period. Imagine climbing into the bunk after a 12-hour shift, only to be awakened for an emergency call for service. Repeat that a few times when you are supposed to be sleeping on shift, and you create a real problem.

Dr. David Black, founder and president of Cordico, has spoken of the value of sleep several times on my podcast, Policing Matters. Interruptions in sleep patterns can cause real psychological issues and cause effects similar to someone under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

The real safety issues multiply when an officer is required to do pursuit driving, control a resisting suspect, or resort to using their firearm. Lack of sleep has a cumulative effect that cannot be corrected with catnaps.

I’m not sure it’s even “worth a try.” In a profession where effects of PTSD are prevalent and home life may be strained, experimenting with officers separated from their families for days at a time may only exacerbate the issues. In an experiment, the situation would be artificial, with participants expected to be “on the job” even during times of rest or being out of service. There would still be an expectation of being on-call, and a sense of duty to respond, when called upon.

I did not realize the weight of being “always on duty” until I retired from the department.  It was weeks into my retirement before I finally felt totally relaxed. It took a while of separation before I stopped “listening out” for a radio call or cell phone notification. Still, when on active duty, when my watch ended, I couldn’t wait to get back in my car and go home to my wife and kids.

Joel Shults: I identify with your transition! I tell people I’m a recovering first responder, and although I suppose there are those who can lay it all down at some point, I’m not one of them. The advantages noted in existing Police1 articles are optimistically reported by, as you point out, small agencies where covering all hours of the clock is a mathematical impossibility. For those agencies, the plan makes sense. I agree that there is doubt about larger agencies finding the same efficiencies. The great thing about bigger departments, however, is their ability to do internal research.

I would encourage experimentation with some squads or precincts to compare response times, overtime costs, morale and leave time between a 48-hour shop and whatever else is normal for their agency. We’ve mostly addressed issues of fatigue, but the other factor I mentioned earlier is whether the work of the agency gets done.

Part of a scheduling change would be an examination of the public's expectations and more efficient labor distribution. Maybe random patrol can be reduced to allow for more respite time at the station or using non-commissioned personnel to respond to non-emergency calls or any of the other efficiencies being explored in light of officer shortages across the country. Anything with a glimmer of hope for making the lives of officers better at the same time that essential police services are enhanced deserves to have a day in the sun.

Jim Dudley: Again, there are so many variables to consider for the 48-hour watch to work. There are considerations of mandatory overtime situations, planned or spontaneous incidents and events, and court testimony appearances. I do see a slim possibility of the 48-hour shift working, but all the planets would have to be aligned for it to work in the short and long term. Without the infrastructure, the experiment is doomed to failure. The agency would have to provide living quarters, with dedicated personal space for each officer, not like a submarine where sailors would swap bunks as watches rotated. The firehouse example is a start.

Next, there should be an expectation that the “sleep and rest” hours should be undisturbed, without any possibility of interruption, without exception. If these contingencies were in place, the ideal candidate would be a single officer, willing to devote themselves to the 48 hours on the job. Those with long commutes to their agency would benefit as well. There should be an assessment conducted in intervals by mental health professionals to determine any detrimental physical or mental health impacts.

Joel Shults: I think your final thoughts are an area of agreement here. This arrangement is experimental and therefore deserves all of the methodologies of an experiment. The final proof of its value will be in the long-term data – health, morale, response time, costs, and most of all, how well services are delivered to the public. Let’s keep an eye on how it goes with the agencies using it.

Police1 readers respond

  • Our agency implemented the "48," actually "52-hour" schedule for about two years. It worked well, but again, our agency is small (15 officers and 3 sergeants), rural, and takes only a few actual calls for service a day (10 to 15 per day). How it worked: 3 squads, 2 days on with 4 days off/rotating. Officers worked 19-hour days (road and "report writing" time), then were down for 5 hours. To accommodate the 40-hour work week, we had to pull an additional 2 hours, so shift "X" would come in 1 hour early and leave 1 hour later. This was perfect as it allowed for transition and back brief the oncoming squads. We have since moved back to the "Panama" schedule (12-hour shifts x 2 days one week, then 3 days the next, giving everyone every other weekend off, since some officers believed we should be compensating them for the entire 52 hours (again, we are remote and have sleeping quarters for our officers). Bad side of the Panama schedule is the transient leadership, as the supervisor is not with their squad the entire shift. What I found about the "48" is that it will only work if the administration understands the FLSA rules (5 hours down in a 24-hour period), and the officers and supervisors "buy off" on it. And, of course, your call volume is low.

  • I am the chief of a 12-member department in New Hampshire. We adopted a 20-hour shift model during COVID in order to deal with limited contact with exposure to each other while on duty. We experienced having to cover all shifts with 4 officers that had not been exposed and forced to quarantine for 14 days. Adopting this 20-hour model accommodated officers' personal schedules with children needing to remote learn and spouses who also worked "essential" jobs. It has been very successful for our department. Morale is high, the time off is appreciated and their personal schedules are easier for them to manage without using excessive earned leave off. Our schedule is 0800-0400 (20 hours) and 1200-0800 (20 hours) They work a shift with 2 days off and then another shift with 3 days off. Patrol partners work out the sleep times; if they need rest they communicate and take the rest needed. Our day shift has ample coverage and the overnight shift has a minimum of 2 officers available for priority calls as needed. The only time an officer is solo is 0400 to 0800. Our old shifts were 2400 to 0800 where we had only one officer on for 8 hours with no immediate backup. I have found success in that we are fully staffed largely because the shift has attracted seasoned officers with families. There has been no effect on response times. Having started my career in 1989, sleeping on duty was not ever accepted. Trust me when I say that I was skeptical at first but I find that this schedule works well for us and our community.

  • My department is a public safety department where we are all certified fire and police. I have worked 8s 10.5s and 12s on the police side and 24s on the fire side. For our department where we are running 110,000 calls a year on the police side and 11,000 on the fire/rescue side, I can personally say that a 24-hour police schedule is not a good idea. For a department with this volume of calls, it would physically and mentally destroy those who are working the police side if they had to work a 24-hour schedule. There are times that on the fire side of the house I am only getting an hour and a half of sleep during the 24-hour shift, which severely restricts the ability to do anything with my family on my following day off. I would recommend to any administrator looking at implementing a 24-hour schedule, to consider their people first and if they press forward with it, to ensure that their troops get a blocked-out rest period where they can actually sleep.

  • From my personal experience, which was being proactive and constantly making contacts from the beginning of the shift to the end with the exception of booking and report writing, absolutely not. That kind of policing can't be done for 48 hours straight, efficiently.

  • No, they should not. I had a 20-year career as a fire/arson/bomb investigator for a large urban fire marshal's office in the eastern U.S. We all were armed law enforcement officers with full arrest powers. We were taken from the ranks of the fire department and sent to the police academy. We tried various 24-hour coverage with shifts that coincided with the fire stations. Unlike the firefighters, they would put out the fire and return to the station and sleep. Our investigations and related criminal incidents were just the beginning of our investigations. More times than I can remember we would work 30-37 hours straight without any sleep and little food pursuing a criminal case. We lived off of coffee and 7-11 store food. This is dangerous in so many ways...decision-making, driving, interaction with suspect/s, arrest, etc. Then there is the issue of overtime. Firefighters begin receiving overtime pay after 53 hours a week, while law enforcement begins receiving overtime after 40-43 a week. At my office, we filed a complaint with the Department of Labor (DOL) who ruled in our favor as we were classified as law enforcement and not fire protection. As such we were awarded 1-year of back overtime pay, and some of the LE investigators received up to $10,000 in back pay. After the ruling from the DOL we began our 24-hour coverage with 12-hour shifts.

  • I've done both: 27 years in a metropolitan fire department and a second career in LE for the last 4 1/2. Both debaters bring up excellent points that I have thought of while reading about it. And both are spot on in a few cases. In a metropolitan or extremely busy department, I am doubtful that it would work well. The fatigue factor would be too great. As it is, when an officer is running call to call chasing the radio, it is hard to do the kind of pro-active police work that most good officers like to do. But in a smaller department that runs fewer calls for service, I could see it working well. If staffing levels were changed to allow more officers on duty at one time as some of the models propose it may even be a safer way to work. It might let officers work smaller cases through that might have had to end at the end of shift.

  • I do not think that it would work. I believe this for all the reasons people have listed and something that also should be considered is equipment fatigue. Consider that firefighters walk around the station in shorts and t-shirts. And when the tones go out, they just step into bunker pants, throw on a jacket and helmet and go. This lets them roll within 60 seconds of a tone going out. It would take much longer for us to put on our gear and get it situated to look "professional." Our emergent responses require that we are put together and ready to go "hot" immediately upon reaching scenes. Fire has the luxury of having a team arrive on scene and rarely have to go into action in seconds. Watch a true fire scene, they are much slower, deliberate and controlled than the chaos we frequently have to hit the ground running in.

  • Unless you can overcome the attitude of the court system, which has little regard for officers' rosters, leave or other essential commitments, the likelihood of implementing this is very low.

  • Not as long as you want proactive policing to exist.

  • No, but they should at least do 12s for employee morale.

  • Well, we are about to give it a go. Currently, my agency has 7 officers who work patrol. We work 12-hour shifts, and often officers work solo. Looking at the 48/96 model, we will have two “on duty” 24/7. Mon- Fri, 8 am-5 pm, we will have four (as the chief and assistant chief often respond to calls). We are looking to add two officers to have a minimum of three officers on duty 24/7. In order to achieve the same staffing level as our current schedule, we would need to add six officers. With this model, we will actually have more proactive patrol, reduce overtime and most importantly, officers will have more family time. Officers will work no more than nine days a month, almost cutting in half what they work now. We asked our officers how much dedicated sleep time they get now. The average is 6 1/2 hrs. We are highly confident we can get our officers 6+ hrs uninterrupted sleep in a 24-hour period, with an additional hour or two nap. Therefore, we should actually have better-rested officers for shift work. While we can’t work it like firefighters, we do believe this model can be successful and improve the quality of life for our officers. We are going to start the 48/96 model in August or September and evaluate the model for a one-year period.

  • Absolutely not. Policing is a proactive job. If we are working any longer than 16 hours as a patrol officer, we are now sleeping at the station and the streets are not being patrolled. This is an abhorrent risk to the community due to an increase in crimes, an increase in sleep deprivation of the officer and an increase in overall costs due to injuries, accidents and lawsuits.

  • Bad idea, in so many ways, and many predictable problems as outlined by the debaters. Be careful what you ask for. See "Tired Cops" by Bryan Vila, Ph. D., a prominent police researcher with 17 years of law enforcement experience, who reports important findings from his NIJ-sponsored research with PERF on police fatigue. Vila explores potential links between fatigue and officer accidents, injuries, illnesses and misconduct. It is 20 years old but still on target.

  • I don’t think it’s a good idea. Firefighters stay in the firehouse much more than a police officer spends at their HQ. Firefighters have much more downtime than police officers. When not on call, the firefighters can sleep and eat in the firehouse. Police officers don’t have that much downtime and to work that amount of hours is just not healthy for them.

  • I will have to side with Jim Dudley in this debate. Our job is to protect our communities, which means we are out on patrol all hours of the night, being proactive, not reactive. Our random patrols give comfort to the residents knowing we are out there keeping them safe.

  • Probably not a workable schedule. Working 8s and 10s now there is seldom time for a real lunch break so a 48 would look a lot like that as there are never enough bodies to go around as it is. It would take some real scheduling acrobatics.

  • Absolutely NOT. I have worked with the fire units plenty of times, I have respect for them, but it is just not the same kind of work. When you get fatigued, it is much easier to make bad decisions and have slow reactions. The fire guys can do it because they are basically sleeping unless they are called out. Police are out on patrol the whole shift.
  • No. The stress levels for law enforcement are much worse than for fire departments.
  • It depends where the officer is. NYC it wouldn’t work especially when a car is answering 30 to 40 drops a shift.

NEXT: Read more "State your case" debates here.

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Is there a place for 48-hour shifts in law enforcement?

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