Police Fatigue Pt. 2: How Fatigue Impacts Performance

John’s 32 years of experience in law enforcement coupled with his human resource and organizational leadership designations make him a perfect subject matter expert when it comes to police fatigue. John led pivotal cultural changes within the Delaware State Police in areas such as fatigue management, special or secondary employment, and staffing and resource allocation. 

In the first part of this blog series, “Police Fatigue: Why We Need to Change the Culture”, I provided you with an overview of just a few issues associated with fatigued law enforcement officers. You may remember that one of the main reasons law enforcement leaders haven’t addressed the problem is because fatigue is deeply embedded in the culture. They have surrendered to the thought that being fatigued is normal, encouraged, and required for police work.  The first step in fixing the issue is taking responsibility for it and understanding the impact of fatigue on performance.

Police Fatigue Can Be Catastrophic

Researchers agree fatigue has been a contributing factor to some of the world’s worst disasters.1  Some of these catastrophes include the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, Exxon Valdez, and the Staten Island Ferry.  At Chernobyl, overnight workers made a critical error and accidentally shut off cooling systems resulting in a devastating explosion.  The Exxon Valdez supertanker struck a reef spilling over 20 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound.  The investigation revealed that the first mate had been on duty for 30 hours and the third mate had only slept six hours in the previous 48 hours.  In New York, a Staten Island Ferry crashed into the dock at full speed after the assistant captain fell asleep; eleven passengers were killed and over 70 injured.  There have been many more accidents in high risk professions, including police officers falling asleep while driving, resulting in deaths and injuries.

Staten Island Ferry

In New York, a Staten Island Ferry crashed into the dock at full speed after the assistant captain fell asleep; eleven passengers were killed and over 70 injured

Tragically, we continue to lose officers in one-car crashes where investigations fail to fully explain why the officer ran off the road.  If your immediate thought was they fell asleep, you are probably right.  If that is the case, why are we not examining how long they worked or been awake?  A good friend once told me, “We don’t investigate heroes.”  That statement reflects a sad reality.  We should investigate if for nothing more than trying to prevent it from happening again.

Why Should You Be Concerned?

Fatigued police officers are more likely to experience diminished performance and increased incidents of injuries, use of physical force to effect arrests, or citizens’ complaints.

When I talk to law enforcement leaders about fatigue, normally the first thing that comes to mind is an officer falling asleep while driving.  Do you know what is second?

Having a picture of one of their cops sleeping in their patrol car going viral on the Internet. 

Not only is it embarrassing to the cop and the department, the officer safety issues are huge.  However, what rarely comes up is the impact fatigue is having on their officers’ judgement, decision making, alertness, mood, productivity, and health.  This third area should really be first on everyone’s mind!

As mentioned in Part 1, sleep deprivation is comparable to being impaired on alcoholic beverages.  The problem is fatigue can’t be easily measured or predicted.  Some researchers define fatigue by the results rather than the causes which often stem from personal experience of past and present circumstances. 2  Fatigue’s impact is also hard to visualize.  To illustrate, research experts use blood alcohol content (BAC) analogies to illustrate the effect of being fatigued. 3

Breath Alcohol Test

What amount of BAC or impairment is allowed by policy when working?

Experts say impairment begins at 17 hours of continued wakefulness and offered the following comparatives:

  • 17-24 hours equated to same level of performance as a person with a BAC% of 0.05;
  • 20-24 hours of wakefulness equated to a BAC% of 0.08;
  • 20-25 hours of wakefulness equated to a BAC% as high as 0.10.

Since nearly all police departments have policies addressing officers working while under the influence of alcohol, you should ask yourself the following question:

What amount of BAC or impairment is allowed by policy when working? 

If your answer is zero, then why do we allow and tolerate officers working severely fatigued as if they were impaired?

If you Google “police fatigue”, you will find many recent and ongoing studies validating the effects of fatigue.  For example:

  • Officers who are on night work earn lower scores on driving simulators
  • Shoot, don’t shoot scenarios accuracy drops for officers experiencing different levels of fatigue.

Google search for police fatigue

These studies are important as some cops need the science to validate common sense or knowledge.  We all have experienced sleep deprivation and know how it impacts us individually.  The problem is that fatigue, like alcohol, firsts impacts our ability to recognize we are experiencing some level of impairment or diminished skills.  Normally it starts with denial such as “I am fine”, or “I haven’t had too much to drink” and escalates from there.  Have you ever argued with a friend who is drunk trying to keep them from driving?  Comparatively, try sending home a highly fatigued cop who is refusing to leave the scene.  They too will argue and rationalize with you as to why they can’t leave or should stay to “see the case through.”  As police leaders, you need to strike a balance between the individual desires (or demands!) and what is best for the department and community.

Fatigued police officers are more likely to experience diminished performance and increased incidents of injuries, use of physical force to effect arrests, or citizens’ complaints.  Fatigue not only impairs performance, but impacts productivity, mood, and judgment all of which can negatively impact the community.   When a fatigued police officer’s judgment is diminished they may fail to recognize danger and are more likely to take risks.

Physiological Impact

Sleep deprivation has been associated with obesity, cancer, diabetes, mental disorder, sleep disorders, depression, and cardiovascular disease.  Are we not seeing cops afflicted with these diseases while on the job or shortly after they retire?  We all know that average life span for a retired police officer is not very long; we need to improve this statistic!  A 2011 survey by the AMA of almost 5000 cops revealed that 40% suffered from sleep disorders; 33% of that group suffered from sleep apnea.  If you stop reading now or only take away one message, encourage your cops to get proper health and sleep screening.

Causes of Law Enforcement Fatigue

Research on law enforcement fatigue has identified that shift work, mandatory overtime, critical incidents, secondary employment, and personal choices are some of the leading causes of police fatigue.

Officer responding to nightime incident

Unanimously, researchers agree the most significant contributing factor of fatigue is working overnight shift work.

Unanimously, researchers agree the most significant  contributing factor of fatigue is working overnight shift work.  Most researchers say some shift workers adapt to working overnight and sleeping during the day, but most report having difficulty sleeping and are regularly fatigued.  Police officers are no exception.  Humans sleep and wake in natural cycles triggered by light called the body’s circadian rhythm.  The interruption of these cycles contributes significantly to the reasons police officers experience fatigue in both the middle of the night and in the middle of the day.4 As I reflect on my shift work years, I had the most difficulty staying awake on day shift.  If you remember my story in part one, I fell asleep during the day in court!

Researchers also say that overtime is another significant contributor to police officer fatigue. 5 Providing police services around the clock presents staffing challenges.  To meet these demands, police administrators need their officers to work overtime while at the same time officers enjoy the significant earning potential.  Efforts to reduce or limit work hours are rare and seldom supported by the unions or associations.

In addition to the mandatory overtime, police officers make personal choices to work voluntary overtime that contribute to their fatigue.  One survey of three different types of large police agencies indicated between 56% and 84% of police officers work a second job.6

The secondary jobs could include moonlighting police services to private vendors or working non-police jobs such as carpentry or landscaping.  Officers working mandatory overtime or secondary employment, often must sacrifice sleep thus creating potentially dangerous fatigue conditions.

Changing the Culture          

When I introduced the Mitigating Fatigue Police program we had to overcome many hurdles from staffing, resistance to change, budgetary, and collective bargaining agreements.  In the end, and nearly 6 years later, fatigue management has become business as usual.  There is no way to measure the cost savings, lives spared, injuries prevented, or close calls avoided with a fatigue management policy.  You can’t put a dollar sign on what you prevented, however there is tremendous value in doing the right thing.

Doing the right thing is not always as easy as it sounds; often right is not popular.  If you follow any police media, you certainly have heard about police fatigue.  There is a lot of fear in addressing fatigue that most likely is fueled by lack of information.  In the next blog, I will talk about fatigue countermeasures such as naps and exercise, policy development, hurdles, and taking action to implement a successful mitigating fatigue strategy.

About the Author 

John Campanella

SHRM-SCP and Retired Captain

John retired in September 2017 from the Delaware State Police after thirty-two years at the rank of Captain serving his last four years as the Director of Human Resources.  John has a Master’s Degree in Organizational Leadership, is a graduate of the FBI National Academy, and is a Senior Certified Human Resources Professional.  John is currently a risk management consultant, trainer, law enforcement subject matter expert, and a certified assessor for the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA). John has also served as a volunteer firefighter for the past 15 years.

John Campanella

InTime Blog

Subscribe to our blog so you never miss an article.

Related Articles