Sleep disorders troubling many Ohio officers

By Dan X. McGraw
The Cleveland Plain Dealer 
CLEVELAND, Ohio — After working the midnight shift, Cleveland Patrolman Tom Ross just wants to go home and get some rest. But catching some zzz's during the daytime isn't easy for him.

So he spends his time pacing his kitchen, watching TV or trying to fall asleep, which leaves him constantly tired, he said.

"I've got nothing to wake up for until midnight, but here I am awake at 1 p.m.," said Ross, an executive officer at the Cleveland Police Patrolmen's Association. "I don't know what it is. I can't stay asleep when I can get to bed, and other times I just can't sleep."

Ross, 38, suffers from a sleep disorder, a common problem for police officers.

A Harvard University study found that nearly two out of five police officers surveyed suffered from a sleep disorder. Researchers presented the findings last month at the annual Associated Professional Sleep Societies meeting in Minneapolis.

In the study, Harvard Medical School professor Dr. Shantha Rajaratnam and six other researchers found that 38.4 percent of police officers surveyed suffered from some form of a sleep disorder because of the ever-changing shifts.

The study group was made up of 4,471 police officers across the nation through a self-reporting survey that was mailed or handed out during visits to random police stations. The submissions were later validated by sleep clinics.

The ailments that plagued the officers included narcolepsy, sleep apnea, insomnia, restless-legs syndrome and shift work sleep disorder.

"Those numbers are probably on the conservative side," said Bryan Vila, a criminal justice professor at Washington State University who has studied police fatigue. "Other numbers have shown anywhere from 40 to 55 percent might have some sort of sleeping disorders or poor quality of sleep."

Vila, who wrote the book "Tired Cops" about police fatigue, said New York researchers also found that police officers at the Buffalo Police Department on average died six to seven years earlier than other blue-collar workers because of the long-term effects of sleep loss.

Lack of sleep has been linked to depression, obesity, heart disease and diabetes. It also affects emotional well-being, mental ability, productivity and performance, sleep studies have found.

Mark Rosekind, the president of California-based Alert Solutions, works with local and national law enforcement agencies to educate them about the short-term and long-term effects of sleep disorders. He said experts estimate $30 million to $100 million are lost every year because of lost productivity, absenteeism or treating health problems related to sleep fatigue or disorders.

"It's an area that has been behind the curve," Rosekind said "We have a lot of general data about sleeping disorders, but what there hasn't been is research on particular groups like police and firefighters."

Bay Village Police Chief David Wright said he wasn't surprised at all with the findings.

"It's been pretty well known within the profession for the last 15 years or so," said Wright, the immediate past president of the Ohio Association of Chiefs of Police. "I experienced it myself."

In an attempt to regulate shifts, many area police departments - including Cleveland's - have switched from rotating schedules to permanent night shifts, citing concern about officers' sleeping patterns and health, officials said.

CPPA President Steve Loomis said that while permanent night shifts have their benefits, those working at night still struggle to get adequate sleep.

"You have morning court dates as well as your day-to-day business," he said. Night-shift officers "don't get as much sleep as the other officers."

Loomis said officers bid on shifts, based on seniority, so they can eventually move off night shifts. He said that is one reason why it isn't a major issue for the union, and many Cleveland officers don't complain about the problem.

Ross, who has been working from midnight to 8 a.m. for nearly eight years, said even on his days off he's dealing with the problem.

"My first day off, I'll just spend the whole day sleeping," he said. "Everything just catches up."

The department's employee assistance program does not offer treatment or information about sleeping disorders. Police spokesman Lt. Thomas Stacho said the department rarely comes across cases of officers with sleep disorders.

Other departments in the United States and in Canada have begun to educate officers about sleep disorders and started to monitor the number of hours worked, Vila said. But many officers work second jobs that eat up sleep time.

Ideally, Vila said, police officers would receive four hours of sleep training before being put on the job, and supervisors would be trained to notice warning signs of sleep disorders.

"Teach an officer how to manage it," he said. "Just like they would maintain their gun or their armor, you have to teach them how to maintain their most important tool - their brain."

Copyright 2007 Plain Dealer Publishing Co.

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