Law enforcement managers wrestle with how to keep their officers from burning out.
By Tamara Koehler
The Ventura County Star
VENTURA COUNTY, Calif. — Like many in the county Sheriff's Department, Sgt. Matt Findlay loves the agency's 12-hour shifts and overtime opportunities.
The veteran officer boosts his paycheck with 500 to 600 extra hours of duty a year. That's the equivalent of almost four extra months of full-time work.
And working the 12-hour shifts gives him more days off to be with his family in Palmdale.
"I love the extra work, I like the extra cash in my pocket, I like knowing what's going on in the community," said Findlay, president of the labor union representing deputies. "I'd say about 25 to 30 percent of us like the overtime and volunteer regularly. Some can handle the hours and some can't."
Still, Findlay, who's in his 40s, admits he sometimes feels the toll of all those hours.
And a growing body of research suggests the price is high. While 12-hour shifts and overtime are popular in police agencies across the country, officers working ever-changing long shifts are more prone to accidents, attention lapses, slowed reaction times as well as high blood pressure and heart disease.
A recent Harvard University study found that nearly two out of five police officers surveyed suffered from a sleep disorder. The findings, presented in June, showed officers suffered narcolepsy, sleep apnea, insomnia, and restless-legs syndrome.
Fatigue and sleep debt — the cumulative effect of not getting enough sleep — also markedly hurt job performance. One study found sleep deprivation from working long shifts caused effects similar to alcohol impairment. On the road, sleep-impaired drivers are as dangerous as drunk drivers.
Sleep deprivation can reduce attention, vigilance and decision-making ability by 50 percent, communication skills by 30 percent, and memory by 20 percent, according to the Police Policy Studies Council.
Other researchers are exploring the connection between sleep deprivation, stress and heart disease. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health is studying how shift work and overtime affect the stress and fatigue levels of 400-plus officers in Buffalo, N.Y.
"The occupation is high in stress, and research has already shown there is a higher risk of heart attacks and disease in those who are more stressed in their work," said Cecil Burchfield, chief of biostatistics and epidemiology with the institute. "Sleep is an important factor in preventing cardiovascular disease. We're trying to look at it in earlier stages, rather than waiting for the heart attack."
Researchers plan to look at sleep deprivation among other workers on long shifts, including firefighters, emergency medical technicians and air traffic controllers, Burchfield said.
Making schedules work
Law enforcement managers are wrestling with how to keep their officers from burning out.
Last year, the Sheriff's Department rank and file worked 341,715 hours of overtime. All deputies working 12-hour shifts had 104 hours of guaranteed overtime built into their annual schedules.
In the 2000-01 fiscal year, before the 12-hour shifts were implemented, deputies worked 319,000 overtime hours, according to the department.
Department managers hope those numbers will dip this year as more recruits finish training and take on full duties.
The Sheriff's Department routinely checks whether officers clocking long hours are having more accidents, drawing complaints, increasing their use of force and getting injured more frequently, said Chief Deputy Geoff Dean. The department has not seen an increase in these indicators, Dean said.
Crackdown on super shifts
Restrictions are also put on how much overtime deputies can work. The cap on an overtime shift in the Sheriff's Department is 18 hours with a mandatory six-hour break.
The cap in the Oxnard Police Department, which also offers 12-hour shifts, is 15 hours, said Chief John Crombach.
"After 15 hours, they're just not any good anymore," Crombach said.
The Sheriff's Department also lengthened the time between shift changes from days to nights and vice versa. Instead of moving officers every eight weeks, it's now every three months.
"That has really helped," Findlay said. "Always changing from days to nights is the hardest."
Recognizing the health effects of sleep deprivation, federal regulators in recent years have curtailed the number of hours in other shift occupations including truck drivers and commercial airline pilots.
In 2004, new trucking regulations took effect to reduce driver fatigue and improve highway safety. The federal rules are intended to provide commercial truck drivers a work and rest schedule more in line with natural circadian rhythms, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Drivers are allowed to drive longer stretches — 11 hours instead of 10 — but will have to rest longer between shifts, 10 hours instead of eight.
Pilots must rest at least 10 hours between normal 8-hour flying times under federal rules.
Meanwhile, some police agencies are dropping the 12-hour shift schedule, despite its popularity with officers. At the West Hollywood station, Los Angeles Police Capt. Buddy Goldman went back to four 10-hour shifts in 2005.
"It seemed like the officers got sick more often under the 12-hour shifts," Goldman said. The city of Los Angeles found that under 12-hour shifts emergency response time decreased and officers were less effective.
But with so many departments offering the popular schedules, police managers are worried they will lose a recruiting edge.
Locally, the Ventura, Oxnard and Simi Valley police departments offer 12-hour shifts.
The county Board of Supervisors approved the shifts reluctantly in 2001, on the promise that overtime would be reduced. That benefit has not materialized, in part because of hiring freezes and recruitment troubles.
"It was really difficult to agree to because I just thought about the stress and strain of working those kinds of hours in an already challenging profession that our deputies deal with in jail and on the street," said Supervisor Kathy Long.
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Calif. officers' overtime pay comes with a cost