Police Fatigue: Why We Need to Change the Culture

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. 

The Current State of Fatigue in Law Enforcement

Fatigue in Law Enforcement is not a new phenomenon.  Experts have studied the impact of fatigue for decades concluding people who are sleep deprived display impaired cognitive and motor skills comparable to the effects of drinking alcoholic beverages.  If a person has been awake twenty-four continuous hours, their impairment may be equivalent to a person being legally drunk.

If a person has been awake twenty-four continuous hours, their impairment may be equivalent to a person being legally drunk.

Many high-risk industries, such as aviation, railroad, trucking, maritime, emergency care, or nuclear power, have been mandated to regulate operations and work schedules in attempts to minimize the perils of fatigue.  However, law enforcement has been spared this codification.  Given the unpredictable nature of police work, where services are expected around the clock, regulation might not be feasible.

A report published by the US Department of Justice disclosed that a substantial number of police officers self-reported working at dangerous levels of fatigue.  Research on law enforcement fatigue has identified that shift work, mandatory overtime, secondary employment, and personal choices are some of the leading causes of police fatigue.  Some aspects of police work, such as working night work or unpredictable hours, are a challenge to overcome, however if the airline and trucking industries can figure it out, so can police departments. 

What if We Tracked ‘Close Calls?’

Although fatigued police officers are not crashing commercial airliners, derailing trains, sinking oil tankers, or creating nuclear meltdowns, some are falling asleep in cars while driving, making poor decisions, missing key evidence, mistreating citizens, or engaging in misconduct.

Not all fatigued police officers suffer these severe consequences; however, many have reported numerous close calls or a sharp decline in productivity.  Most police agencies track crime trends, arrests, and other statistical data that includes automobile crashes involving police officers or citizens’ complaints against officers however, we do not track “close calls” or “near misses.”  Just imagine how an honest conversation between a subordinate and a supervisor might unfold:

Hey Sarge, boy did I just screw up…I just did something incredibly stupid or dangerous…but don’t worry nothing bad happened…I just thought you ought to know.”

I am not suggesting that we start tracking “near misses” but we should encourage dialogue that allows officers to better understand the impact of fatigue.  If we can reduce the number of times employees are working while fatigued with suppressed cognitive skills, we will reduce the number of close calls or near misses.  By reducing close calls or near misses we can effectively reduce the misfortunes.

Addressing the Culture Problem

If fatigue in law enforcement is not a new phenomenon, why haven’t police leaders addressed the issue?  I will tell you why:  Because fatigue is deeply embedded in our culture; We accept, tolerate, and encourage it!  We’ve surrendered to the thought that being fatigued is normal and required for police work.  We make excuses, “Oh, he has to work overtime to pay bills…or she is in school.”

We normalize fatigue very early in the recruiting and training process.  We tell applicants they must work long hours or work all night and then go to court during the day.  Even though police work often involves long hours overnight, we do little to mitigate the problem. During the early stages of training we create artificial stress through sleep deprivation to “weed out” those who don’t have the drive to do our job.  We then expect these tired cadets or recruits to retain material presented in the classroom.

We normalize police fatigue very early in the recruiting and training process.

We encourage fatigue by offering unlimited overtime, secondary employment, or moonlighting with little or no management controls.  Some department’s pension calculations include overtime, encouraging officers in their last years to rack up the hours to enhance their pension benefit.

Here is the reality: The older we get, the harder it is to handle the long hours, shift work, or sleep deprivation. Studies have shown fatigued humans have slower reaction times and other impaired cognitive functions so your partner or your backup may not notice a threat, be too slow to react, or over react.  These fatigued cops may be your backup.

Sleeping on the Job

During my 32 years as a State Trooper, I recall numerous times when I worked long hours (mandatory and voluntarily) where I was so tired I couldn’t recall driving home.  There were nights I couldn’t keep my eyes open, so I would meet up with another Trooper to catch a nap.  However, personally I found staying awake during the day the most challenging.

One memory that I can laugh about today happened back in the mid-1980’s when I was as a young Trooper.  I fell asleep in the back of the court room after working several nights of shift work.  I knew I was tired, but what choice did I have?  I had a subpoena, so I had to appear.  I thought I was doing well until I woke to the sound of the prosecutor calling my name for the third time.  If that happened today, I would have a viral social media video or image to include with this blog!  I remember thinking to myself, “One day if I have chance to make a difference, I am going to do something about fatigue.”

Taking Responsibility and Changing Protocols 

There are many policies and practices out there designed to restrict voluntary overtime, yet many departments require their cops to work extended hours far exceeding what they will allow them to voluntarily work.

I was fortunate to be given a chance to make a difference in 2010 by the Colonel of the Delaware State Police at the time.  I researched, authored, and guided the organization through implementing one of the nation’s first true fatigue management policies.  What set our policy apart from others was that it just didn’t manage the hours worked, it included mitigation protocols for when “We” (The Department) fatigued our cops.  Mitigation is an essential piece of a true fatigue reduction plan.  There are many policies and practices out there designed to restrict voluntary overtime, yet many departments require their cops to work extended hours far exceeding what they will allow them to voluntarily work.  Resolving this conflict between mandatory and voluntary overtime was one of the keys to the success of the fatigue management policy at the Delaware State Police which remains in effect today.

It’s Not a Matter of ‘If’ but ‘When’

As the demands for police services increase, so does the scrutiny by lawyers, judges, media, and the public heightening the need to understand the potential culpability of fatigued police officers.  Special interest groups continue to analyze all aspects of law enforcement looking for malfeasance.  It is only a matter of time before lawyers, suing for misconduct, injuries, or deaths caused by police, start looking at how long the officer was working or how long they had been awake because of working long extended hours. 

This pursuit may not be limited to injuries or death; officers and agencies may be held accountable for poor decisions or violations of protected civil rights if it can be shown either party was aware, or should have been aware, of a highly fatigued employee.  Not only does fatigue management make sense, it would help reduce potential injuries and liability as well as improve health.

Do you have fatigue compliance policy? How are you governing this? How are you being made aware if fatigue rules are broken?


Everyone Knows

If you are a chief or police leader, these tired cops work for you; if you don’t believe you have a problem, you may want to look closer.  It is easy to find out who your tired cops are…just ask them, they know.  Not only do they know, but their sergeants know, their co-workers know and if they all know, guess who else can find out?  Lawyers.

If you allow your cops to moonlight, work special/extra duty, mandate overtime, or work compressed shifts, you own the responsibility.  You need to know when they are working, how long, and ensure they have ample time to rest to reduce fatigue.  In today’s day and age, there are software solutions available to manage work hours guided by sound policy.  While policy and software will help manage police fatigue, the only true way to make a difference is to shift the culture from acceptance and tolerance to understanding, management and mitigation.

In future blogs John Campanella will discuss how fatigue impacts performance, hurdles in mitigating police fatigue, solutions, and results.  

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

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