One of the unknown trials and tribulations experienced by a night shift cop is the difficulty in acquiring a sufficient amount of sleep to remain productive and healthy for a long period of time. Scientists haven’t figured out why sleep is so important to a human body, so I won’t even make an attempt. The only thing I know for certain is that a lack of sleep sucks-especially when your line of work dictates that you be at your peak performance at any given moment.
I’m sure that folks who work night shifts outside of law enforcement have some of the same problems, working while most of the free world is sleeping away in bed isn’t terribly natural. In some ways the body actually works against the night shifter, especially when a lack of ambient lighting triggers the brain to begin releasing melatonin which brings about grogginess and the feeling of being tired. This isn’t a scholarly article that will delve into the ins and outs of sleep; I’m not a doctor or a scientist. I’m a simple street cop that works nights.
According to the television shows and movies, when a major case rolls out, no one sleeps until it is solved. I’ve pulled some extremely long shifts that spanned over 18 hours at a time in uniform and I wouldn’t have touched the paperwork associated with a major case if I had to at that point. The words simply would not have been available for my brain to relay to my fingers and the keyboard. If the case is a big deal someone else had better be read in enough to type it, or I would need to arrange to turn in the paperwork after some sleep.
Those kinds of cases are fairly rare, especially in my little suburban area of the Donut. The reality is that the entire world begins to conspire against the night shift cop, and sleep is one of the first things that is sacrificed in order to complete everything that needs to be done.
During my time in the Marine Corps, I developed the ability to sleep in just about any position, at any time, and in any clothing. The unwritten infantryman’s philosophy was “why stand when you can sit, why sit when you can lay down, and why lay down when you can sleep?” I slept through mortar and rocket attacks for months without so much as stirring unless someone physically laid hands on me. I may not be as proficient at it now, but given the opportunity, I can typically fall asleep with the best of them.
There are a lot of things that conspire against the night shift officer. We work all night and go home with the hopes of catching a decent day of rest, only to receive a telephone call from a detective or records clerk with questions about a completed case report. We receive text messages and telephone calls from work when additional manpower is needed. We receive subpoenas to testify in court at 8:00 am in spite of the fact that everyone knows we work until 6:00 am. We go to required training sessions and meetings that are scheduled by day-walkers with no concern for our sleep because they fit the schedule of the star and oak leaf cluster club. We work off duty employment jobs to provide extra money for our families and spend more waking time in uniform than out of it.
Outside of work-related tasks, we also have families who have schedules that alter our sleeping patterns. Most of us don’t maintain a night shift schedule on non-working days because no one else in our family sleeps during the day. Changing sleep patterns makes things really interesting while you try to figure out what day of the week it is, or whether or not the clock says 6:00 am or 6:00 pm when you first gain consciousness. We have responsibilities to uphold at home that require us to be out of bed in spite of a need for sleep. Events during the school day, doctor’s appointments, and kid’s sporting events often stand in the way of a few winks.
A little sliver of sunlight can be enough to cause the body in need of sleep to work against itself. Not to mention that the rest of the world is awake and making noise during the daylight hours when a night shift cop is trying to sleep. Trash trucks, kids playing nearby, barking dogs, neighbors completing construction projects or tinkering on cars, and those doggone firemen who love their sirens can all interfere with our sleep.
Cops are typically “type A” personalities. We take on tons of tasks and find solutions to problems. When there is something to be done, we take care of business. We’re good at it. We aren’t so good at taking care of ourselves.
Driving while sleepy is not a fun task. The studies I’ve read say that after about 20 hours of being awake, a person’s reactions are similar to that of a person with a .10 blood alcohol content. A lack of sleep in that amount can lead to catastrophic results as a patrol vehicle goes on autopilot for a period of time without a conscious driver. We’ve all shared the horror stories of the time we woke up at an intersection with our foot smashed on the brake pedal and the car in gear and tried to figure out how many light cycles we slept through. Or the time we woke up in our driveway with the sunlight beating down on our faces a couple of hours after a shift was done.
Cops are expected to make the right decisions all of the time in an instant. Making life and death decisions with little to no sleep is not ideal to say the least. And the reaction time delay that we all know from our experiences while driving drowsy can also come into play during potentially lethal encounters.
The problem goes beyond driving and decision making. A consistent lack of sleep can have health implications too. Sleep disorders are prevalent in law enforcement. Insomnia, sleep apnea, and shift work disorder can lead to other, more serious issues like high blood pressure and heart disease.
We preach officer safety on a daily basis. Weapon control, situational awareness, vehicle positioning, building approaches, etc. are taught at the academy and beyond ad nauseam. We never talk about the physiological need for sleep and how not having enough can take a toll on us. There are agencies out there that have started to take positive steps in encouraging officers to get enough sleep, however mine is not one of those.
I’m lucky in that Mrs. Donut is very mindful of my need for sleep. She corrals the sugar donuts and defends me from them interrupting my obvious need for beauty sleep. She understands that my life may depend on me being physically and mentally rested for work, so she goes about her business much like a single mother while dad is asleep or at work a majority of the time. We still haven’t figured out how to drown out all the other distractions and requirements of life, and I still haven’t found someone willing to pay me significantly to sit on the couch. So until we work those out, I’ll remain sleepless in suburbia.
It’s time to go patrol the Donut…