What’s Causing Police Fatigue?[i]

What’s Causing Police Fatigue?[i]

 It is totally reprehensible that the cops we expect

  1. to protect us,
  2. come to our aid,
  3. and respond to our needs when victimized

should be allowed to have the worst fatigue and sleep conditions of any profession in our society.”

     William C. Dement, M.D.,  Ph.D.

The work hours in many professions (for example, airline pilots and truck drivers) are standardized and regulated for a reason.  So why isn’t there a work hour structure for police officers.

Would you want a fatigued, sleepy Doctor performing surgery on you? Would you want to fly in a plane with a fatigued pilot? There are scattered reports of officers working astonishing amounts of overtime or extra duty details. Timekeeping records for one police agency found 16 officers who each averaged more than 80 total work hours per week (including regular and overtime hours) during a 12-month period. One officer once worked 130 hours in a single week averaging less than 6 hours off each day.

Surveys conducted with police chiefs and supervisors supports the idea that overtime work contributes greatly to police fatigue.

Surveys reveal the following:

  • at least a few officers in most departments work substantial amounts of overtime
  • more than half of the officers in many departments moonlight
  • on average, patrol officers worked a reasonable 17.5 hours of overtime per month
  • about a third of the departments reported that their officers work 20 or more hours of overtime per month
  • one department reported that its officers worked an average of 100 overtime hours per month, and
  • on average, officers attributed 35 percent of the overtime they worked to off-duty court appearances
  • 20 percent to making late arrests or writing reports
  • 11 percent to taking extra shift assignments to fill in for someone who was sick, on vacation, or disabled
  • experience suggests that overtime seldom is evenly distributed
  • some officers work extreme amounts of overtime while others work little or none.

Specific causes and effects are difficult to establish for something as complex as fatigue.

Shift length: In the two departments that used compressed shifts (shifts of 10-12 hours), officers appeared to have significantly fewer sleep problems and reported significantly less fatigue at the beginning of their work shifts.

Shift assignment policies: The way in which departments assign people to their shifts tends to affect older and experienced officers more. We all know that people are less able to cope with fatigue and sleep disruption as they age. Age and experience explained a substantial amount of the fatigue reported by night-shift officers in departments that made shift assignments based on department needs alone. Older officers who could select their own shift tended to be less fatigued.

Personal circumstances: Many officers who had young children at home have an additional source of fatigue and sleep deprivation.

Few women reported feeling tired at the start of their shifts.

Interestingly, no correlation was found between marital status and fatigue.

Commuting: Longer commutes are significantly related to more self- reported fatigue and to lower quality sleep for day-shift officers possibly due to heavy highway traffic during the day as opposed to the night shift. A moderately strong positive correlation between commuting distance and fatigue-related impairment was found.


The research still is a long way from fully explaining the role fatigue plays in police officer accidents, injuries, and citizen complaints—but the limited data available suggest that fatigue contributes to these problems.

Steps to manage police fatigue and better understand its causes must be a priority.

Existing research suggests 4 steps every police agency can take to assess the extent to which fatigue puts its officers, the community, and the Department that they work for at risk:

  • Review the policies, procedures, and practices that affect shift scheduling and rotation, over time, moonlighting, the number of consecutive work hours allowed, and the way in which the department deals with overly tired employees.
  • Assess the level of fatigue officers experience, the quality of their sleep, and how tired they are while on the job as well as their attitudes toward fatigue and work-hour issues.
  • Review recruit and in-service training programs to determine if officers are receiving adequate information about the importance of good sleep habits, the hazards associated with fatigue and shift work, and strategies for managing them. Do officer know how fatigue affects judgement, decision making, and response reactions.
  • The agency should develop fatigue or alertness management policies and programs and implement them.
  • Involving qualified researchers in policy analysis and program evaluation can help departments develop the best practices possible. It also may help limit civil lability associated with fatigue related accidents, injuries, and misconduct by providing evidence that a department has conscientiously attempted to ensure that its officers are not impaired by fatigue.

Looking Forward

  • Fatigue is a serious, challenging problem that has serious affects on all humans.
  • Police managers and researchers need to form a partnership to minimize the threat fatigue poses to our communities and to our officers.
  • Distinguished sleep researcher William C. Dement summed up the problem this way:
    • Police work is the one profession in which we would want all practitioners to have adequate and healthful sleep to perform their duties at peak alertness levels.
    • Not only is fatigue associated with individual misery, but it can also lead to counterproductive behavior. It is well known that impulsiveness, aggression, irritability, and angry outbursts are associated with sleep deprivation. It is totally reprehensible that the cops we expect to protect us, come to our aid, and respond to our needs when victimized should be allowed to have the worst fatigue and sleep conditions of any profession in our society.

[i] Tired Cops: The Importance of Managing Police Fatigue, published last year by the Police Executive Research Forum. This study is based in part on work conducted under NIJ grant 96–IJ–CX–0046. Bryan Vila can be reached at 307–766–2177 or bjvila@uwyo.edu.

Link to article Tired Cops: The Importance of Managing Police Fatigue

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