Cops are the most sleep-deprived workers in America. That's bad news in the suburbs, too

By Charles Keeshan and Susan Sarkauskas

After an 8½-hour shift helping supervise overnight police operations in Arlington Heights, Sgt. Christopher Sefton is ready to crawl into bed and get some much-needed sleep.

The rest of the world, however, isn't always ready to cooperate. Between passing trucks, landscaping crews and cellphones, not to mention his natural body rhythms, sleep can be hard to come by when he gets off duty early in the morning.

Then there's his family.

“I've got two young kids who don't always know what quiet means,” said Sefton, a 13-year department veteran. “When you can sleep, you sleep. And when the kids want to play, it's, 'Daddy, wake up.'”

About six months into his assignment as a patrol sergeant on the department's 10:30 p.m.-to-7 a.m. shift, Sefton is still getting used to juggling his work and family life with his body's need for sleep.

It's a struggle shared by law enforcement colleagues across the country, one that a growing body of research says has serious implications not only for officers and their departments but also for the communities they serve.

According to a new study from Ball State University, law enforcement is the most sleep-deprived profession in America, with about half the workers in the field getting less than seven hours of sleep a day.

The findings confirm earlier academic research, including that of Washington State University professor and former cop Bryan Vila. In a 2011 publication, Vila wrote that sleep and fatigue is as much a basic survival issue for police officers as firearm safety, patrol tactics and pursuit driving. At least 15% of officer deaths from vehicle accidents and violent attacks could be eliminated if police fatigue were addressed more seriously, he said.

And a study by the State University of New York at Buffalo found police officers sleep less and die earlier than the rest of the population, are more likely to suffer cardiovascular disease, face more risk for cancer and experience higher rates of suicide.

What's going on? We asked a longtime colleague of the now-retired Vila, Washington State University professor Stephen James.

James, who's researched and written extensively about issues affecting the safety and health of law enforcement officers, said factors including shift work, job stress and the way overtime hours are assigned combine to keep cops from getting the rest they need.

'A vicious cycle'

No occupation works more true night shifts - through the midnight hour - than law enforcement, James told us. And people aren't made for working those hours.

“Our bodies work poorly, at the cellular level, when we try to sleep during the day and stay up through the night, especially to work,” he said.

Making things more difficult for night shift cops is their work isn't always done when their shifts end. Some must attend departmental meetings or training sessions during daytime hours. Other times, officers on the graveyard shift must stay awake to testify in court.

Then there's the job stress, which James said can be even higher for officers working midnights.

“There's a saying that day shift cops deal with victims, night shift cops deal with criminals,” James said.

“It becomes a vicious cycle,” he said. “It's hard to sleep, and the lack of sleep makes it harder to deal with stress, which makes it harder to sleep.”

Stress and long hours are a big part of the problem, but overtime and pension rules also play a surprising role.

Police departments typically base overtime assignments on seniority - the longest-serving officers get first dibs on extra hours (and extra pay).

And many state pension systems set retirement incomes on the salaries earned during the last few years of service, giving cops who are approaching retirement incentive to take on as many extra hours as possible, James said.

Now you've got your oldest cops taking on the most hours and dealing with the most fatigue.

Life-or-death consequences

While a lack of sleep may leave us feeling grumpy around the office, it can be a matter of life or death for a police officer.

In 2011, a sheriff's deputy in California returning to work early after a 12-hour shift the previous day fell asleep behind the wheel of his cruiser and crashed into two bicyclists, killing both.

Closer to home, a Wheaton police officer fell asleep while on patrol in 2009 and plowed into a house. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but the officer was suspended without pay for six days.

Fatigue can also hamper a police officer's judgment, posing additional risks to the officer and public.

A 2014 study found poor sleep, more work days and working night shifts led to poorer decision-making by officers in “shoot or no shoot” scenarios. It also led them to use deadly force more quickly than when they were well-rested.

What to do?

So what can police leaders do to make sure their officers are getting enough rest?

James said the most important thing is to recognize fatigue exists and find ways to manage the risks involved. That means limiting how many hours an officer can work in any 24-hour period, placing restrictions on how many hours they can work off-duty and changing overtime rules to spread out the extra hours more evenly.

But the task of getting officers more sleep doesn't just fall on department brass, James said. Officers need to take responsibility for their own rest.

“Every species on the planet with a brain needs sleep,” James said. “We're the only species that doesn't listen. We think we can pour Red Bull and Monster Energy drinks into our bodies and we'll be OK. But you can't man up or push through.”

So how do you persuade hard-charging police officers and their bosses to make sleep a priority? Appeal to their professionalism and desire to be their best, James said.

“If you listen to your body, it'll allow you to maximize your performance,” he said.

In the meantime, back in Arlington Heights, Sefton is listening not just to his body but also to more experienced officers' advice on dealing with the challenges of the midnight shift without missing out on special occasions and seeing his kids growing up.

“It's definitely an adjustment,” he said. “I'm still getting used to it.”

Police from Palatine and several other Northwest suburban police departments attended a candlelight vigil last week at the Sikh Religious Society of Chicago in Palatine for Sandeep Dhaliwal, a Harris County, Texas, sheriff's deputy killed in the line of duty. Courtesy of the village of Palatine

Standing together

In a show of unity with the suburbs' Sikh community, police officers from Palatine and several other Northwest suburban police departments took park in an interfaith candlelight vigil last week in honor of slain Harris County, Texas, sheriff's deputy Sandeep Dhaliwal.

Dhaliwal, 42, was murdered Sept. 27 during a traffic stop in a Houston suburb. He was widely recognized as a trailblazer in his community, becoming the sheriff's department's first Sikh deputy a decade ago and winning permission to wear his turban while on duty in 2015.

The vigil, held at the Sikh Religious Society of Chicago in Palatine, also paid tribute to all law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty this year.

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