Police officers and SLEEP: “O.K. so like…What’s that?”

In December 2011, a study was released by Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston which reported that about 40% of police officers in the U.S. have a sleep disorder. From my experience over the past 27 years as a cop, my thought is this: “TELL ME SOMETHING, I DON’T ALREADY KNOW”. Seriously, I am thrilled with this study as we are once again getting scientific facts which will help our profession advocate for better working conditions.

Dr. Bryan Vila in his book: TIRED COPS has already been educating us on this serious issue.

As law enforcement officers know most of our duty time is during the night hours. I worked midnights for many years and I can tell anyone first hand that it was tough especially during those shift hours between 0300 to 0600 when we as human beings have a natural dip to fade physically as our human biological clock tell us we should be sleeping. We have other cops who work swing shifts, rotating shifts, 10-12 and some 16 hour shifts. Unbelievable!

The conflict is the public we serve and police administrators expect us to be bright eyed and bushy tailed during these hours. Put on top of this expectation: rotating shift schedules, forced overtime shifts, court appearances and training are some of the professional conflicts that police officers face. This contributes to the problem. I mean let’s face it; there are very few court sessions or in-service training being held during the night time hours with an exception of the large communities or agencies.

Contributing to this problem is… our 24 hour access to television, video games, the internet and other forms of electronic stimulation. I suffer from this activity and it is an addictive form of distraction.

So what’s the big deal?  –  Everyone’s Safety
5000 police officers participated in the study from various agencies including the Massachusetts State Police. Cops were screened for sleep disorders, apnea and insomnia. Some of the feed- back indicated that cops reported physical problems such a feeling sleepiness and exhaustion. The reports noted that officers suffered from substance abuse, weight management issues, lack of physical fitness, nutrition issues and mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and other mental health emergencies. Overtired cops on duty are driving in police vehicles, making life or death decisions and they must be alert, vigilant and ready for physical confrontations with bad guys. While we are off duty when we are overtired and our moments of weakness increase, conflicts and problems develop with our loved ones. Some cops think this is a badge of honor to work long hours or be up for maximum hours, this is insane, dumb and unhealthy. Think about this folks: Is this the person I am going to depend on when it’s time to take care of business? This is a safety issue for our profession and the community we serve.

What are we as a profession, going to do about it?
This is why I am hopeful that this information is going to help our profession. This is fresh and a pretty good scientific report on the problem. Call me a Maverick but I have 2 thoughts about this issue:

1. This is an opportunity for collective bargaining units and police administrators to come up with a realistic plan to improve police officer’s working conditions and schedules while providing options to assist on duty personnel who may need to help combating this problem. Results from this study indicated that exercise helps reduce sleep disorders. The Mass. State Police are provided 1 hour daily to exercise while on-duty. The troopers pass an annual fitness test and they are financially rewarded for maintaining their fitness.

2. The risk of liability issues because this scientific study is creating discovery for legal counsel of a serious problem which government officials and our profession needs to address. This study indicates the predictable hazards and how this condition can affect our job performance.

What are you going to do about this?
When we get the recommended amount of sleep consistently every night (or during the daytime) we are contributing to our individual wellness. We know from experience that nothing happens fast in our profession when it comes to developing a plan and getting everyone on board especially when it involves change. As individuals we have to accept responsibility for our own health, fitness and our own well-being. It is up to YOU to make a committed plan with input and support from your loved ones, your peers and your agency.

• Plan out your work schedule, your committed sleep hours in a dark, cool and comfortable bedroom that is quiet (no phones or electronics).
• Reduce your caffeine and sugar intake way before bedtime.
• Some people like a warm shower or tub before bed as a way to relax.
• Commit to an exercise program especially before the start of your shift. Beware of heavy exercise before your planned sleep time.
• Try to spend some time during the night with a Light-box which is a device that simulates sunlight. This helps your brain adjust, perk up and is a way to fight depression and mood disorders.
• Visit your physician if you are having sleep issues.


Your Family Life:
• It is important for you to schedule your sleep time, it is very important to schedule time to be present (and awake) for our loved ones.
• Plan your family events and meals together.
• Keep a positive outlook about our work schedule while listening and acknowledging our loved ones grievances of this dysfunctional schedule.
• Ensure that you and your loved ones SCHEDULE and COMMIT to SPECIAL TIME

In Your Work Life:
• Keep a positive attitude about the work schedule by mentally accepting the assignment until you can bid off to a better assignment.
• Take it easy on our peers. They may be irritable and suffering from some of these issues. Be supportive.
• If you are dangerously tired while on duty, safely go back to your station. Check in with a supervisor and let them know what is happening. Try to find a safe place away from the public view to take a quick nap or rest.
• Bring your meals with you in the cooler bag on duty. Pack it with healthy whole and nutritious food, grains, fruit and protein. Pack that bottle of water.

This is the opportunity for our profession to address a serious health and work environment problem. The law enforcement communities along with government leaders need to take a serious look at some options that other professions utilize to help combat these health issues. Everyone needs to keep an open mind and be willing to experiment while selecting a better option. This is one of those times when change can be good.

REMEMBER: We are the honorable profession!
Stay safe and be well!

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

CopsAlive.com 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.

We will help your agency create the kind of place that supports and protects officers so that they can do their jobs better, safer, longer and survive to tell their grand kids all about it.

We do this by Helping Law Enforcement professionals plan for happy, healthy and successful lives on the job and beyond. We think the best strategy is for each officer to create a tactical plan for their own life and career. We call this Tactical Wellness planning.

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I’m John Marx, Founder of The Law Enforcement Survival Institute and the Editor of CopsAlive.com. Connect with me on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

About Mark St. Hilaire

Sergeant Mark St.Hilaire has 25+ years as a police officer and is currently serving as a Patrol Sergeant in a suburb of Metrowest Boston, Massachusetts. Mark is continually training as a police peer assistant, and serves as a volunteer member of a regional C.I.S.M. team. He is committed to educating public safety professionals about the benefits of good health,developing our relationships and emotional wellness to improve our quality of life on and off duty.
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  1. Hello Howard,
    Thank you for your comment. Yes, I remember when shifts changed much more frequently. I nearly accepted my first police officer position with an agency that rotated you to all three shifts within one week. I almost said yes, but I was still taking college classes and just couldn’t do it. Looking back, I’m really glad that I didn’t accept that job!

  2. Howard "Jake" Jaquay

    One additional issue to be considered is the average time required to adapt to a changed shift schedule. That average is between 30 and 60 days, during which our circadian rhythm (a host of metabolic functions including cardiac, skin temperature, visual and auditory acuity) go through a 24 hour cycle. Sleep outside of the portion of that cycle when the body is ready for it is only approximately half as effective as when the body is ready for sleep. Can anyone else remember when shifts were changed every 30 days?
    Good article on an important subject. Thanks

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