From CBS HealthWatch July 8, 2001

Sleep Deprivation: 'Public Enemy Number 1' for Cops

Article URL:

Debbie Carvalko, Medical Writer

Photo Two 32-ounce colas didn't pack enough caffeine to keep officer Thomas Aveni's eyes open at 4 AM. Aveni, a policeman working the graveyard shift in New Jersey, steered his patrol car over to a curb and put it in park--or so he thought. When he awoke he realized he had driven into a fence.

Aveni's accident didn't hurt him or anyone else, but other fatigued police officers know that sleep deprivation can be deadly.

Tired cops working the beat is an issue nationwide.
In Margate, Florida, officer Francine Murphy was working the night shift when she ran a red light and crashed into a van, seriously injuring the driver. Murphy admitted later that she was exhausted from lack of sleep.

In Muskegon Heights, Michigan, officer Lovely Jamison, working a double shift, crashed a patrol car and was critically injured.

In Cincinnati, Ohio, officer Donald Scalf was driving home from a midnight shift when he fell asleep at the wheel, and struck a 45-year-old jogger, killing him.

Tired cops working the beat is an issue nationwide. "It's the kind of issue that, I'm afraid, is a ticking time bomb," says Aveni, now a board member of the Police Policy Studies Council based in Spofford, New Hampshire. "And every once in a while it goes off."

Fatigue Like Drunkenness

Lots of people are sleepy on the job. So what makes concerns about the police greater? "For one thing, police officers carry guns," says Glory Cochrane, a health educator with the Albuquerque Police Department in New Mexico.

Cochrane cites studies, including two in a recent issue of the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention, showing that the effects of sleep deprivation are similar to the changes in ability and judgment seen in a person under the influence of alcohol. "Seventeen hours without sleep is equivalent to a .05 blood alcohol level, and 24 hours without sleep is like a .01 blood alcohol level. In most states, the legal limit for a driver is .08," says Cochrane.

The effects of sleep deprivation are similar to the changes in ability and judgment seen in a person under the influence of alcohol.
And we all know that lack of sleep shortens tempers. "Yet, aside from high-speed pursuits, police also have to deal with suicidal subjects, and they are involved in domestic disputes where they are the mediators, or actually pulling people apart. Police can say something that escalates the situation ... and they do, very commonly," says Aveni. The 23-year police veteran is now writing a book to be used in cadet training classes about the importance of sleep.

"In a rational world, we'd be at least as concerned about fatigue as alcohol--whether people are fit to do a job," says Brian Vila, a former police chief who began working as a patrolman in 1969 with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department.

The author of Tired Cops: The Importance of Managing Police Fatigue (2000, Police Executive Research Forum), Vila is now an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Wyoming. He cites another deadly problem with tired cops: Police fatigue, he says, can play a role in questionable shootings, especially in low-light conditions.

Department Outlaws Overworking

"They are impaired," Vila says of fatigued cops. He says many work long hours because of mandatory overtime, even though they know it can have dangerous effects. "After the book came out," says Vila, "I had so many email me: 'Where's the evidence I can take to my chief? We are dying out here!'"

In an article to be published in the National Institute of Justice Journal, Vila attributes all this overtime and exhaustion to off-duty court appearances (expected in addition to an officer's normal shift), late arrests and report-writing, voluntary overtime, and moonlighting. A nationwide survey he cites shows that officers in one department each worked 100 hours overtime monthly.

Vila adds that heart and gastrointestinal disorders are relatively common for officers working overnight or swing shifts.

The Albuquerque Police Department has decided to solve the problem. The department earned an award and the title "Healthy Sleep Capitol" from the National Sleep Foundation in March 2001 after the department passed a regulation forbidding officers to work more than 16 hours a day (20 hours a week overtime).

"The effect of sleep disorders and fatigue as it relates to public safety officials is a topic that has been ignored far too long," says Albuquerque Deputy Chief Raymond Schultz.

Attitudes Hard To Change

Attitudes that cause staff-strapped administrators to assign and offer overtime, rather than hire more officers, may be tough to change in some police departments.

In Branford, Connecticut, police officers filed a grievance because they were being ordered to work overtime without notice.
In Branford, Connecticut, police officers filed a grievance earlier this year because they were being ordered to work overtime without notice. "With this forced overtime, you can't plan, can't take a nap, can't change the next day's schedule," says Ron Suraci, president of the local Police Union 459. "And you're supposed to make life and death situations when you are fatigued?"

But Branford Deputy Chief Raymond Wiederhold says the disgruntled officers are just a whining minority in his department.

"I'm very health-minded myself. I'm not a fat, lazy police chief who sits here behind my desk smoking cigars, telling my men to work all of the time," says Wiederhold. "I work more than 60 hours a week myself! No one's health is being put in jeopardy by overtime," he says. But he admits that the force--with 26 patrol officers in a city of some 35,000 people--is inadequate and "could use 35 [more officers]."

Wiederhold, boasting that he's a runner and weightlifter, blames exhaustion on union officers' personal habits--like smoking and drinking alcohol. "Double shifts, for most guys, are not a problem. A double shift never hurt nobody!"
Changing the "Sleep Culture"

What do the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the space shuttle Challenger explosion have in common?

Mark Rosekind, a board member of the National Sleep Foundation based in Washington, DC, and president and chief scientist at Alertness Solutions, a consulting firm in Cupertino, California, says he wishes the answer would shock people into cutting overtime work.

Both disasters involved "fatigued people making critical decisions," he says. "The first mate on the Valdez had been working 30 hours," Rosekind says. During the night of March 24, 1989, the Valdez oil carrier ran aground, spilling some 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound.

On January 28, 1986, NASA managers preparing the space shuttle Challenger launch "had been working long shifts--more than 20 hours--before making the critical decision on whether or not to go, with what they knew about the O-rings." The O-rings failed and caused the explosion, says Rosekind, who was later hired as director of NASA's Fatigue Countermeasures Program.

Rosekind left NASA in 1997 to start his own company. "I thought: 'Here's all this information [on the effects of sleep deprivation] and nobody's getting it.' It was time to get out of the lab and do something about it," he says.

Alertness Solutions now consults with businesses like airlines, railway companies, and trucking firms seeking ways to avoid fatigue-related accidents and boost productivity.

The data it shares include statistics showing that working double shifts can be as damaging as drinking double martinis. Sleep deprivation can reduce attention and vigilance by 50%, decision-making ability by 50%, communication skills by 30%, and memory by 20%, says Rosekind.

But the sleep-deprived may sense no change in their abilities. "There is a big gap between how people feel and how they really are," he explains. "This is a real issue--a health issue--and it puts people at risk!"

But there is, he adds, a "historical and cultural" bias against reducing overtime work or rejecting it. "It's a macho thing. Saying you are fatigued means you are too tired and lazy, that you don't have 'the right stuff,'" he says. "But at some point if you sleep-deprive your brain, you are going to pay for that ... and we are paying, with lives."

Debbie Carvalko is a freelance medical writer based in Connecticut.

Reviewer: Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Reviewed for medical accuracy by physicians at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), Harvard Medical School. BIDMC does not endorse any products or services advertised on this Web site.

Send mail to with questions or comments about this web site.