Sleep Deprivation – A Public Safety Threat

Sleep Deprivation – A Public Safety Threat

By Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D

Picture this. A young police officer works a combination of night shifts rotating between straight midnights and a “power shift” from 7P-3A. He is scheduled for days off to coincide with his Army National Guard drills one weekend of every month. He was working on his master’s degree, taking classes during the day. To supplement his income for his young family he takes occasional off-duty security work and takes overtime shifts in addition to his other side job running a propane truck delivery route in the early morning. That didn’t count those days when a manhunt or other major event required working multiple shifts without relief. His eyelids scratched over his reddened eyes like sandpaper and a cup of 7-11 coffee is a constant presence on patrol.

That was me. It was not a permanent condition of my professional life, but it wasn’t rare either. Being the young stud that I once was I just calculated that it was a cost of being a small town midnight cop trying to get ahead and a test of my resilience as a first responder. In retrospect, not that I could have done much differently, my younger self didn’t know how harmful sleep deprivation is, and neither did my peers or leadership.

“Sleep deficiency can lead to physical and mental health problems, injuries, loss of productivity, and even a greater likelihood of death” according to a publication of the U.S. National Institute of Health, and “is linked to many chronic health problems, including heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, obesity, and depression. Sleep deficiency is also linked to a higher chance of injury.”

With current staffing shortages across the nation, more officers are working extra shifts and overtime. If poor or inadequate sleep just affected the officer, we could chalk it up to the cost of doing business along with stress and other factors that are reported to be life-shortening consequences of law enforcement. These factors may explain why the Public Safety Cardiac Foundation reports that while the average age for the onset of a cardiac event is 67, it is age 49 for first responders. The Office of Justice Programs reports that the life expectancy of a police officer is twelve years fewer than the average for the civilian population, dying an average of five years after retirement.

Such dire consequences pose a substantial risk to sleep-deprived officers and the public they serve. Decision-making while fatigued is compromised, making stress-filled, complex decisions slower and less accurate. Tired brains reduce spatial perception and the ability to put stimuli in context, and motor skills needed to react swiftly are reduced while increasing anxiety and irritability. Forty percent of police officers report falling asleep while driving. The National Institute of Justice cites studies that show “not sleeping for 17 hours impaired a person’s motor skills to an extent equivalent to having an alcohol toxicity of 0.05 percent. Not sleeping for 24 hours was equivalent to a toxicity level of 0.10 percent.”

There are solutions in addition to humane scheduling practices. Proper nutrition (also a victim of lack of sleep as my Hostess Cupcake diet and 7-11 Coffee attest) improves sleep, as does healthy physical activity, regular sleep routines, and support from friends and family. Before I was married, I shared an apartment with a roommate who very kindly knocked on my sleeping room door at noon asking if I wanted to share lunch. Having gone to bed around 8 that morning, “lunch” lost its meaning. I cured him of the habit by stopping by at 3 a.m. to wake him asking if he wanted breakfast. Officers might need to keep their phones on for emergency calls, but calls and visits during sleep time should be avoided without guilt. Strategies to measure optimum sleep time, which varies from person to person, can help calculate healthier sleep habits.

In the scheme of overall officer wellness, adequate rest is essential to maximum performance in serving the public. Leaders must make it a priority.