Long shifts raise concerns for law enforcement

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Capital News Service
LANSING — Although many police officers enjoy the perks of a 12-hour shift, this popular schedule may not be what’s best for officer safety and for the communities they serve, a law enforcement leader says.
In many health and public safety jobs — police, firefighters, doctors and nurses — someone has to be on the job 24 hours a day. Such “shift work” is regularly divided into 10- or 12-hour shifts, often to save money.

Twelve-hour shifts result in officers working 84 hours every two weeks, instead of 80 hours, said Robert Stevenson, executive director for the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police. This means fewer employees, which saves on health and insurance benefits. Two shifts as opposed to three also means less time doing roll call and other administrative work at the beginning of each shift.
Filling two shifts a day, rather than three, also makes scheduling easier, said 1st Lt. Michael Shaw, public information officer for Michigan State Police.
It isn’t the length of a 12-hour shift that causes performance problems,
said Charmane Eastman, a professor at Rush University Medical Center who has studied the effects of changing sleep cycles. Instead, problems with shift work develop when schedules constantly change from days to nights and officers are unable to develop a healthy sleeping pattern.
“The optimal work schedule from a health point of view is not usually what workers want,” Eastman said in an email. “They want the most time off, the most days in a row off.”
In a 2012 paper, Eastman stated that permanent night shift workers were healthier sleepers because they kept the same sleep schedule for days on and off. However, most people do not like night shifts because sleeping during the day interferes with family and events.
Detective Sara Sylvester of Buena Vista said she found herself more tired when working eight and 10-hour shifts than she was when working 12-hour shifts because she did not have as many days off to rest.
But no matter the length, overnight shifts are always the hardest, she said. “Between 3 and 4:30 [a.m.] it’s like a wall hit you,” Sylvester said. “But during day shift I never noticed it.”
Napping was not an option, Sylvester said, because officers are expected to be on the road, and sleeping in a patrol car can lead to officers being killed.
Days also tend have more activity either on the road or at the station, which makes the time go by faster, Sylvester said. A long night shift with nothing to do but drive around can leave a road officer in a dangerous position, Stevenson said.
“It’s very difficult, especially on the midnight shift from those hours of 4 till 7 [a.m.], when nobody else is moving out there and everything’s quiet and there’s not much to keep your mind occupied,” he said. “I’ve had many a night that I’ve been driving around, counting the seconds to get off because I’m so tired it’s a struggle to stay awake.”
On top of working their shifts, officers are also often expected to be in court. For an officer working the midnight shift — 6 or 7 p.m. to 6 or 7 a.m. — this can result in being awake for up to 20 hours before going back to work a few hours later, Stevenson said.
Twelve-hour shifts are not the only shift schedule for all police departments. The Michigan State Police offers 10-hour shifts and combination eight – and 10-hour shifts, Shaw said, but many will still ask to work 12-hour shifts. Stevenson and Shaw both agree that most officers prefer working the long hours.
Extended hours means more full days off to spend taking care of personal matters, Sylvester said. Unlike workers with a regular 9-to-5 job, Sylvester can go to the doctor or the dentist without having to take time off work.
Although officers like having multiple days off, Stevenson says this approach isn’t necessarily the best for building relationships with communities. Stevenson would prefer officers work eight-hour shifts and more days a week so communities can see the same officers on a daily basis and build relationships.
“In this time of community policing when you’re supposed to be connected with the community,” Stevenson asked, “is that the best thing for the community that the police officers are only there half the time?”

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