Fatal Fatigue: The Consequences of Sleep Deprivation on Officer Safety

image of someone in bed pushing the snooze button on alarm clockThere has been a surge of media attention focusing on fatigue management following the recent incidents of air traffic controllers falling asleep on the job. However, these issues are equally as prevalent and dangerous to those we rely on to protect and serve our communities. Law enforcement officers (LEO) face some of the highest risks associated with fatigue, yet this profession is often overlooked in research and policy initiatives related to the topic.

Dr. Bryan Vila is a leading sleep research expert on the effects of officer fatigue. During his 17-year career as a police officer, Dr. Vila recognized the seriousness of officer fatigue. “Working in south central LA as a patrol officer in the early 1970s…was a particularly dangerous time,” Vila stated in a telephone interview on April 20, 2011, “I was working up to 80 hours of overtime a month.” Vila noted that the combination of working extensive hours in serious or dangerous situations had adverse effects on his ability to perform his duties in the safest possible way. “No matter my intentions, I found myself becoming easily frustrated and unable to remain calm in situations because I was so tired.” These effects directly counteract the important role police officers are expected to uphold in serving and protecting our communities. Vila also said that, “we need to have [officers] at their best, to be able to read people, empathize with them, interact with them—this all starts to go downhill once you are tired.”

However, damaged community relations are not the only negative effects associated with police fatigue. “Fatigue decreases attentiveness, impairs physical and cognitive functioning, diminishes the ability to deal with challenges, and sets up a vicious cycle: fatigue decreases your ability to deal with stress and stress decreases your ability to deal with fatigue.”1

Relying on his personal experiences, Vila pioneered research on the negative effects fatigue has on an officer’s performance and safety. His research began during the 6 years he was police chief for the Micronesia Police Department, and then continued after he completed his Ph.D. at the University of California and became an associate professor at the University of California Irvine. Dr. Vila now directs the Simulated Hazardous Operational Tasks laboratory in Washington State University’s Sleep and Performance Research Center in Spokane. He has authored plenty of research on the effects of fatigue on officer safety and wellness, and continues to make strides in this field of research that has often been overlooked.

Vila presented some of his findings in a panel at the latest IACP conference where he discussed “Strategies for Promoting Officer Safety by Managing Fatigue and Work Hours.” At the conference, he shared statistics from a survey conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, which examined officers from the United States and Canada. The survey found that 53 percent of officers get less than 6.5 hours of sleep on a daily basis (compared to 30 percent of the general population), and that an overwhelming 91 percent reported feeling “routinely” fatigued. Additionally, 14 percent of officers’ report feeling tired when they start their work shift, 85 percent drive while “drowsy,” and 39 percent have fallen asleep at the wheel.2

The effect fatigue has on an officer’s abilities behind the wheel is a crucial component in officer safety. It has been hypothesized that officer fatalities resulting from vehicle accidents and violent attacks could be reduced by 15 percent if the problem of police fatigue were adequately addressed.3 According to a report published by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF), preliminary data show that of the 162 law enforcement fatalities recorded in 2010, 73 were attributable to traffic-related incidents: Traffic fatalities were the leading cause of officer’s killed in the line of duty for the 13th year in a row. More specifically, of the 73 traffic related incidents, 50 officers died in automobile crashes.4

In a study conducted by Dr. Eun Young Noh for the U.S. Department of Transportation National Highway Traffic Administration entitled “Characteristics of Law Enforcement Officer’s Fatalities in Motor Vehicle Crashes” data from the National Center for Statistics and Analysis’ (NCSA) Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) was used to evaluate and analyze fatal crashes involving law enforcement officers. The study used FARS data from 1980 through 2008 to investigate the characteristics of LEO’s fatalities in motor vehicle crashes. Currently, FARS is the only database containing detailed information on law enforcement officer vehicle fatalities.5

While it is impossible to make a direct correlation between the data and the assumption that fatigue was a major contributing factor, there is substantial evidence that indicates this connection is likely. For example, Vila asserts “officers most at risk seem to be those who work through the night; because the body’s natural circadian rhythm is to be awake and working in the daylight. In most people, there tends to be a gradual decrease in alertness after 10 or 11 o’clock at night, hitting bottom between 3 and 6 AM.”6 Data from the USDT study support this finding: Of the 733 law enforcement officer fatalities in passenger vehicles recorded from 1980 to 2008, 42 percent occurred between the hours of midnight and 7:59 AM, followed by 36 percent occurring between 4PM and 11:59 PM, and 23 percent between 8 AM and 3:59 PM.7

Additionally, other health risks have been associated with late night shifts. In a study by Dr. John Violanti from the State University of NY- Buffalo, Dr. Villa and other members of the research team randomly selected 61 males and 36 females from a city agency with over 900 officers and collected a variety of medical data—including blood samples and blood pressure—as well as shift assignments and overtime hours worked for all participants. Each participant was evaluated for a  number of health risks: three or more of the identifiable factors constituted a “metabolic syndrome,” putting the participant at an increased risk of stroke, heart disease, and Type 2 diabetes. In most of the individual health risk categories, those who worked the midnight shift ranked the worst. Thirty percent of officers working the midnight shift were considered to have a metabolic syndrome, compared to 11 percent of those who worked day shifts and 15 percent who worked primarily in the afternoon.8

“Officers who worked midnight shifts and averaged less than 6 hours of sleep had a significantly higher mean number of metabolic components…four times that of a day officer and two and a half times that of an afternoon officer.” Vila explains, “Sleep times for officers on midnights tend to be outside the range of normal so they customarily get not only less sleep, but sleep of less quality.”9

How many officers are really affected by sleep abnormalities? A Harvard Medical School group conducted a study of 5,296 law enforcement officers in the United States and found that nearly 40 percent of active-duty officers are suffering from sleep abnormalities such as apnea, insomnia, shift work disorder, restless leg syndrome, and narcolepsy with temporary paralysis. Further, sleep loss makes you more vulnerable to depression, obesity, cardiovascular and gastrointestinal disease, and diabetes.10

The potential risks that officer fatigue has on officer safety should be obvious. However, there are no direct numbers with which to display the correlation. The role of fatigue on job performance has been examined in other occupations, including medical professionals, truck drivers, and airline pilots. Yet, as Dr. Kerry Kuehl of Oregon Health and Science University explained in an interview with Force Science News, “as an occupation, law enforcement has received only limited study, and few agencies have health promotion/harm reduction programs, despite a demonstrated need and the reasonable conclusion that occupational wellness is critical to recruiting and maintaining an effective workplace.”11

Vila agrees with this assessment, saying “We know how to schedule to minimize risk, how to help people sleep better during the day, how to tell if someone is too tired—but what we need is experimental work that will give us definitive answers as to ‘how long is too long?’ and ‘what are the direct correlations between lack of sleep and the effects on police situations?’” He continued, “Law enforcement managers are asking for concrete evidence—how many hours is safe for this particular job? The only way to get that evidence is experimentally.” Vila and his research team intend to continue this research. Over the next two years, they will conduct controlled laboratory experiments that he hopes will provide the scientific basis needed for managing police fatigue. The study will examine the impact of work-related fatigue on the performance of experienced patrol officers in critical operational tasks, specifically vehicle driving, deadly force encounters, and reporting.

In an interview with Force Science News Vila said, “Even though research involving other professionals makes clear that fatigue from sleep loss degrades human performance while driving, making decisions, collecting information, communicating, and reporting, little is known about the magnitude of those effects in police work. That is important knowledge we need in order to manage police fatigue in a cost-effective manner.”12

The ground breaking work of Dr. Vila and his colleagues is highly anticipated and is likely to generate huge strides in the creation of policies to combat issues related to officer fatigue within the law enforcement community. He hopes that the evidence from his study will help “bring labor and management together to manage the risks and take care of our officers and the communities they serve.”

-Jessica Mansourian
Program Analyst
The COPS Office

To read more about the work of Dr. Bryan Vila please visit http://spokane.wsu.edu/academics/crimj/crimj_vila.html. Also, to read more from Force Science News, and to sign up for their newsletters, visit http://www.forcescience.org

1 Force Science News. 2011. “Anti-Fatigue measures could cut cop deaths 15% researcher claims.” Force Science Institute, Inc. February 25.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Law Enforcement Officer Deaths: Preliminary 2010, Research Bulletin. “Law Enforcement Fatalities Spike Dangerously in 2010.” National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. http://www.nleomf.org/facts/research-bulletins/

5 Noh, Eun Young. 2011. Characteristics of Law Enforcement Officers’ Fatalities in Motor Vehicle Crashes. National Highway Traffic Administration Technical Report.

6 Force Science News. 2011. “Anti-Fatigue measures could cut cop deaths 15%  researcher claims.” Force Science Institute, Inc. February 25.

7 Noh, Eun Young. 2011. Characteristics of Law Enforcement Officers’ Fatalities in Motor Vehicle Crashes. National Highway Traffic Administration Technical Report.

8 Force Science News. 2009. “Midnight shift and health risks: New study tells sobering truths.” Force Science Institute, Inc. February 18.

9 Ibid.

10 Force Science News. 2007. “Police and Sleep Problems: Are you a 40% er?” Force Science Institute, Inc. September 7.

11 Force Science News. 2010. “New study targets health problems, early deaths of LEOs with unique peer-group approach.” Force Science Institute, Inc. August, 27.

12 Force Science News. 2011. “Anti-Fatigue measures could cut cop deaths 15% researcher claims.” Force Science Institute, Inc. February, 25.

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