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Cop fatigue: Serious issue or fact of life on patrol?

By Sean Webby
Mercury News

CALIFORNIA — Just inside the Atherton police station, in a converted dark room with a constellation of glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling, is something unique and controversial in the world of law enforcement: a bed.

It's unusual because even though most officers work long, difficult shifts, the one thing they must never do on-duty is take a nap.

But Atherton's Chief Robert Brennan allows, under certain circumstances, his officers to take short snoozes as long as someone is out on patrol. He believes it heads off the exhaustive effects of cops juggling late-night patrols, overtime and long commutes.

In the wake of the horrific, double-fatal crash last weekend, when a Santa Clara County sheriff's deputy smashed his patrol car into a group of cyclists, Brennan says his policy is looking prescient.

"This is a sad way for it be happening," Brennan said. "It takes a cop running over somebody, and suddenly everybody is saying, 'Uh-oh.' "

The issue of cop fatigue - called "our dirty little secret we don't tell people about" by a local commander - is now front and center in the local law enforcement community.

Deputy James Council reportedly told witnesses that he must have fallen asleep at the wheel. The 27-year-old officer was in the middle of the second of three 12 1/2-hour shifts. Mary Sansen, Council's lawyer, has said fatigue may have been a factor in the March 9 Cupertino crash that killed Matt Peterson, 29, of San Francisco, and Kristianna Gough, 30, of Oakland.

Occupational hazard

While cop fatigue is a serious issue, many cops brush it off as an occupational fact of life. To them, danger swirls especially around "vampire shifts."

Bobby Lopez, head of the San Jose police officers union, recalls scary times when he was so tired on patrol that his heart would start racing. He also remembers chugging NyQuil when he got home to help him get to sleep.

Many South Bay cops acknowledge that they were simply expected to work through exhaustion with the help of breaks and on-duty activity.

"They don't give a crap about how tired we get," said one South Bay law enforcement member, who admitted that officers sneak naps - but only when they are covered by a trusted fellow officer.

"Cop fatigue is a constant battle for every police chief," said Palo Alto Chief Lynne Johnson, whose patrol officers normally work 11-hour shifts. Johnson and several other chiefs said supervisors have the flexibility to allow officers to report late or go home early due to fatigue.

Los Gatos Chief Scott Seaman, whose officers can choose between 10- or 12-hour shifts, said most departments manage the issue by keeping track of individual hours worked.

"I don't suddenly have a concern that, at 10:30 Sunday morning, my officers will fall asleep," he said. "And I don't think that deputy crossed the yellow because he was working 12-hour shifts."

A perennial struggle for police departments is the length of shifts, and some believe the 12-hour shifts are more manageable and cut down on overtime. Because those shifts usually mean three days working and four days off, they are used as recruiting enticements.

Honolulu switched to a 12-hour shift and then switched back to an eight-hour shift in 2006, after concerns about fatigue.

Last year, Oakland's police union went to arbitration to prevent a switch to 12-hour shifts. The union lost.

East Palo Alto Chief Ron Davis was so concerned about fatigue that he endorsed a privately funded "wellness center" where cops can work out, watch TV and nap - but not during a shift.

Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith promised that if the Cupertino crash was fatigue-related, she will consider alterations in training and patrol methods.

Federal statistics show that about 1,500 people die in fatigue-related accidents each year, but there are no statistics that show high rates of police barreling into people due to longer shifts. Still, their fatigue leads to increased citizen complaints, stress-related illnesses, depression, sick days, family problems and, of course, car accidents.

'Erratic work hours'

"Many police officers in the United States can't do their jobs safely or live healthy lives because of long and erratic work hours, insufficient sleep and what appears to be very high levels of sleep disorders among experienced cops," said Bryan Vila, a professor of criminal justice and author of the book "Tired Cops: The Importance of Managing Police Fatigue."

Looking at Council's day-time crash, some studies may be revealing.

A 2003 study showed that accidents and injuries occurred twice as often during 12-hour shifts compared to eight-hour ones. And at least three studies say traffic incidents notably increase after spring daylight-saving time.

Council's crash happened just hours after the start of daylight-saving time - which cost the deputy an hour of sleep.

Copyright 2008 San Jose Mercury News

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