Law enforcement, by its very nature, requires police and correctional officers to work all hours of the night. In order to maintain a safe society and remain proactive in their fight against crime, police departments and sheriffs' offices are expected to maintain coverage 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Holidays, nights and weekends are all just another day on the job for most officers. An unfortunate side effect to these long and irregular hours is law enforcement fatigue.
What are the consequences of tired police officers, and what can they and their departments do to combat these unwanted effects?
Stress of Police Work
It's almost universally accepted that law enforcement is an inherently stressful occupation. Take away the work environment stressors - like shift work - and you are still left with the stresses of worrying whether or not today is your last day. The dangers are well documented. Increased risk of infectious disease, the chance of being injured of killed by a suspect, inattentive motorists and training accidents are just a few.
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The dangers associated with police work, the fear of the unknown and the need to maintain constant vigilance is enough to leave anyone tired and worn out at the end of the day. When we add irregular working hours, non-standard work times and rotating shifts, it's easy to see how an officer can quickly run out of steam.
- Read more: How Dangerous Are Law Enforcement Careers?
Health Hazards and Law Enforcement Careers
Besides the obvious, there are health risks associated with police work. Several studies, including comprehensive research conducted by the University of Buffalo, has demonstrated a strong correlation between law enforcement careers and poor health. Among the risks identified were an increased rate of lymphoma, a higher percentage of suicides and a greater occurrence of obesity among active cops.
- Learn more: Health Risks of Police Work
In addition to stress, poor sleep habits were cited as a major factor in the less-than-stellar health of police officers.
The Dangers of Law Enforcement Fatigue
Stress and poor sleep carry with them an even greater risk: law enforcement fatigue. When police over work and under sleep, they can understandably become tired.
If you've ever been tired at work, you probably noticed you made more mistakes than usual and perhaps found it difficult to make quick decisions.
A study out of Australia by Drew Dawson and Kathryn Reid, titled Fatigue, alcohol and performance impairment, showed that after just 17 hours without sleep, subjects' motor skills were similar to those with a blood-alcohol level of .05. After 24 hours without sleep, their motor skills were similar to someone with a BAL of 0.10.
To put that in perspective, in the United States, motorists are considered to be impaired and driving under the influence with a BAL of .08. In short, going for long periods without sleep mimics alcohol impairment.
When police officers are tired or fatigued, they can become much more prone to make mistakes. And when police make mistakes, they risk hurting not only themselves, but fellow officers and members of the public as well.
Law enforcement fatigue has been shown to lead to an increase in on-the-job accidents, as well as automobile crashes. In fact, in Tired Cops: The Importance of Managing Police Fatigue, Bryan Vila notes that 4 out of 8 work-related accidents and injuries sustained by police officers occurred when the officer was tired or fatigued.
According to the National Institute of Justice in addition to to injury risks, fatigued police officers were found to call in sick more often, have more adverse encounters with fellow officers and members of the public, and become involved in more excessive force situations and inappropriate uses of control. Officers who demonstrated signs of fatigue were also shown to be more likely to die in the line of duty.
Cause of Law Enforcement Fatigue
The irregular hours associated with shift work, the non-standard work shifts and the high level of stress all contribute to officer's lack of sleep. The are other causes, too, that seem to play a big role in officer fatigue. These factors, such as overtime due to a call that comes at the end of the shift or mandated court appearances on their days off also contribute to the problem.
Off-duty jobs, wherein officers perform security and other functions with private employers for extra cash, also factor in. In some cases, officers spend almost as much time on their regular jobs as they do on off-duty work, meaning many officers routinely work 70 and 80-hour work weeks.
Combating Law Enforcement Fatigue
Tackling the problem of police fatigue is no easy task; the nature of the job means there will be times that officers will necessarily work well beyond the end of their shifts. Issues like court appearances and other incidental overtime will continue to factor into a police officer's career. Off-duty work serves an important function by filling in security gaps where on-duty officers wouldn't be available due to manpower constraints, while at the same time providing oft-needed extra income for officers.
There are steps that can be taken, though, and fortunately many departments across the country are taking them. Regulating the number of hours officers are allowed to work is a start. Taking a wholistic approach by implementing robust wellness programs that encourage stress reduction and healthy sleeping patterns is another.
Ultimately, the individual police officer has to take ownership and responsibility for his or her own health and sleep habits. Police departments and even fellow officers can help by educating their employees and peers on the dangers of police fatigue and the importance of getting adequate sleep.
Increasing Officer Safety, Decreasing Officer Injuries
By working to decrease the instances of tired cops walking the beat, it is not only hopeful but possible that line-of-duty injuries and deaths can be reduced. That will mean more police and corrections officers will make it home at the end of their shift, and will be able to enjoy their criminal justice careers all the way through to a well-deserved retirement.
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