Law Enforcement Officer Fatigue is a Critical Issue

EDITORS NOTE: The following article was brought to us by David Blake M.Sc and Edward Cumella PhD. about their research into law enforcement fatigue in relation to deadly force encounters. This subject if of vital importance to law enforcement officers and agencies around the world. We hope that you will engage in the conversation and bring the discussion back to your agencies.

Officer Fatigue and Officer Involved Shootings (OIS) – A deadly combination for error!

By: David Blake M.Sc and Edward Cumella PhD.

Law enforcement data indicate that officers frequently suffer from high levels of fatigue due to lack of sleep, unusual shift schedules, and long hours awake. Research confirms that fatigue impairs a person’s mental functioning, especially in areas such as decision making, reaction time, and memory. Yet little study has directly investigated fatigue’s impacts on officers’ performance in police specific tasks, particularly in deadly force situations.

A first of its kind study

A recent study conducted by me; David Blake, MSc., a retired police officer, and Edward Cumella, PhD, a professor of psychology at Kaplan University, has finally addressed this issue. Our ground breaking research examined fatigue’s effects on 53 officers’ decision making and reaction times when the officers were faced with deadly force situations. Officers completed online tasks both before and after each of their shifts, for one week. Records included a history of their sleep patterns, total hours slept, total hours awake, shifts worked, and sleep quality. Officers were then engaged in a series of simulated shoot/don’t shoot scenarios using pictures of potential targets, targets that use of force experts had previously classified as warranting either a shoot or don’t shoot response, or as ambiguous.

Dr. Cumella and I found that many fatigue measures correlated strongly with officers’ impaired decision making and slowed reaction times within the deadly force situations. In particular, poor sleep quality, greater total time awake, more days worked, and working night or swing shifts all decreased the accuracy of officers’ decisions to shoot or… don’t shoot and also slowed their reaction times. These impacts occurred most frequently when officers were faced with the more difficult decisions within the don’t shoot and ambiguous scenarios. In other words, compared to well-rested officers, fatigued officers chose to shoot more often when they should not have done so, and they took longer to decide on the appropriate action when faced with ambiguous situations. The study also indicated that the negative effects of fatigue increased throughout each work day, with officers’ reaction times growing consistently longer from pre-shift to post-shift.

A surprising and concerning finding from this new study was that the officers had experienced only moderate levels of sleep deprivation and fatigue, yet even these moderate levels appeared to cause impairments in decision making and reaction time. For example, the average total time awake per officer per day was 16 hours. A mountain of empirical evidence demonstrates that 17 hours of total wake time is equivalent to a .05% blood alcohol level (BAC); in the present study, officers’ performance was shown to decrease with 16 hours of wake time. Officers in our study averaged 6.4 hours of sleep per night, and slept only 20 minutes less per night on work days vs. days off. Although this may not seem like a large amount of sleep deprivation, research has shown that even small decreases in sleep below an average of 8 hours per night create a cumulative sleep debt, the negative effect of which is added to the total hours awake. As such, with the 6.4 hours of sleep per night reported by the officers in the study, participants’ performance levels were impaired nearly to the same extent as someone with a .08% BAC.

Studying fatigue in policing – should we know more?

In a second phase of the study, 277 officers shared their opinions about the role of fatigue in law enforcement. The results were astonishing; with 69% of officers admitting that lack of sleep had caused a mistake or error in their police work. 92% believed that the law enforcement field does not adequately concern itself with safety issues arising from officer fatigue, and 95% felt the law enforcement field needs to formally explore the impact of sleep deprivation on officers’ performance.

The results of our study parallel known scientific research about the effects of fatigue on human cognitive performance. Fatigue has been linked to industrial and motor vehicle accidents, causing human errors that have resulted in loss of life and property damage, usually because of impaired decision making, attention problems, and slowed reaction times. These are clearly not factors which the public would want police officers to face, especially when those officers are making the most critical decision about whether or not to use force in a police encounter. The decision to take a life in the line of duty and the ability to make that decision quickly enough to save one’s own life is an extremely important public and officer safety concern that cannot be under-emphasized.

Law enforcement executives, police unions, officers themselves, and other responsible persons should be concerned about the results of this study because many have noted that the law enforcement industry often entails extremely fatiguing environmental conditions due to shift work, overtime, and long hours. Because our study involved a relatively small sample of officers and used a computer simulation that has not yet been fully validated, a next step should include a follow-up study with a greater number of officers from a nationally representative sample of police departments. If the results of follow-up investigations reveal the same findings, proactive steps would appear to be warranted to ensure that officers are not sleep deprived or awake for too many hours while on duty.

For example, fatigue mitigating measures can be enacted using simple adjustments, such as on duty nap periods for fatigued officers, circumscribed overtime rules and total work hours, and less frequent shift rotations. Continued research can more precisely determine at what point total hours awake and nightly sleep quantity begin to unacceptably impair officers’ performance. The current study indicates that performance deficits arise from even low levels of fatigue. If these findings are borne out, decisive and timely follow up may be required to ensure that those who are sworn to protect and serve are able to do so at an optimal human performance level for the benefit and safety of themselves and the public.

Dr. Bryan Vila of Washington State University is conducted a similar study (we are not associated) and his results should be out sometime soon. He used a shooting simulator to test the theory and I am very much looking forward to seeing if our results run parallel.

Bryan Vila, Ph.D., is a professor of criminal justice and criminology at Washington State University, Spokane, is a former law enforcement officer and is the author of “Tired Cops: The Importance of Managing Police Fatigue” a book published in 2000 by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF).

You can find a PDF copy of the report Tired Cops: The Prevalence and Potential Consequences of Police Fatigue by Bryan Vila and Dennis Jay Kenney produced by NCJRS by CLICKING HERE.

You can read an article on Sleep Deprivation by Brian Vila by CLICKING HERE.

For more information or inquiries about the Blake/Cumella Study, please contact author David Blake by email by CLICKING HERE.

Biographical Information

Dave Blake, M.Sc.

David Blake, retired from the Livermore (Calif.) Police Department after 16 years of federal and local police experience due to injuries sustained in a violent on duty incident. His career included duties within SWAT, Force Options Unit, Field Training, Gangs, and Narcotics. He is a certified Force Science Analyst and has attended the CA POST certified Force Encounters Analysis course. He holds instructor certificates in DT, Firearms, Force Options Simulator, Reality Based Training, and WMD. He currently is an adjunct professor of criminal justice, police academy instructor, Force Encounters Analysis Instructor (CTI), and owner of the Blake Consulting and Training Group. Blake holds a BS in Criminal Justice Management and a M.Sc. in Psychology. To Contact Dave by email CLICK HERE.

Edward Cumella, PhD

Dr. Edward Cumella received a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University, and a master’s degree and a doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has been involved in psychology education since 1988, teaching at Kaplan the past 2 years. Dr. Cumella has also been a mental health practitioner for 26 years, assessing and treating eating disorders, depression, and anxiety. Before Kaplan, he was executive director for 12 years at Remuda Ranch, at the time the nation’s largest eating disorder treatment facility. Prior to this, he was in private practice and directed Nevada’s mental health programs for Native Americans. Dr. Cumella has presented at many professional conferences. He has been interviewed as a mental health expert on national television, radio, and in newspapers, including ABC, FOX News, Discovery Channel, New York Times, and Reader’s Digest. He has published more than 50 scientific articles and two books, and serves on editorial boards of peer reviewed psychology journals. He is a member of the American Psychological Association, International Association of Eating Disorders Professionals, and the American Association of Christian Counselors.

CopsAlive is written to prompt discussions within our profession about the issues of law enforcement career survival. We invite you to share your opinions, ask questions and suggest topics for us in the Comment Box that is at the bottom of this article.

At The Law Enforcement Survival Institute (LESI) we train law enforcement officers to cope with stress and manage all the toxic effects and hidden dangers of a career in law enforcement.

Our “Armor Your Self™: How to Survive a Career in Law Enforcement” on-site training program is an eight hour, hands-on, “How to” seminar that helps police officers and other law enforcement professionals armor themselves physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually to survive their careers in police work. To learn more CLICK HERE

The concept of “True Blue Valor™” is where one law enforcement officer has to muster the courage to confront a peer who is slipping both professionally and personally and endangering themselves, their peers and the public. It takes a system of organizational support and professional leadership to support and foster the concept of courage and intervention. We will train your trainers to deliver this program to your agency.
To learn more CLICK HERE

Our “Armor Your Agency™: How to Create a Healthy and Supportive Law Enforcement Agency” Program includes critical strategies that you will need to build a system of support and encouragement for a healthy and productive agency. To learn more CLICK HERE

CLICK HERE to read more about The Law Enforcement Survival Institute.

CLICK HERE if you would like to contact us to learn more about training for your organization.

I’m John Marx, Founder of The Law Enforcement Survival Institute and the Editor of Connect with me on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. was founded to provide information and strategies to help police officers successfully survive their careers. We help law enforcement officers and their agencies prepare for the risks that threaten their existence. Thank you for reading!

About Editor

John Marx was a Police Officer for twenty-three years and served as a Hostage Negotiator for nineteen of those years. He worked as a patrol officer, media liaison officer, crime prevention officer and burglary detective. Also during his career he served as administrator of his city's Community Oriented Governance initiative through the police department's Community Policing project. Today John combines his skills to consult with businesses about improving both their security and their customer service programs. John retired from law enforcement in 2002. When one of his friends, also a former police officer, committed suicide at age 38, John was devastated and began researching the problems that stress creates for police officers. He decided he needed to do something to help change those problems and he wanted to give something back to the profession that gave him so much. He started a project that has evolved into Put simply, the mission of CopsAlive is to save the lives of those who save lives! gathers information, strategies and tools to help law enforcement professionals plan for happy, healthy and successful careers, relationships and lives.
Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *