Written by Sabrina Smith

May 2019

Police Sleep Deprivation

It happens to every one of us at one point or another: shifting back and forth on our sides, stomach, and back whilst checking our phone every 30 minutes to see just how long we have been fruitlessly attempting to drift off. A process many of us take for granted every evening – falling asleep – becomes a task, an impossible work assignment. Within a few nights, most of us recover - however it can be a chronic problem for some, and when this problem occurs for individuals in professions such as law enforcement, the result is no longer just a bad day by the water cooler – sleepless nights could mean the endangering of lives.

 

Thinking of stressful work environments, law enforcement definitely makes the top 10. The day to day life of a police officer is pretty rough – night shifts of cruising through neighborhoods waiting to be called for an incident, dealing with car accidents and domestic abuse issues in the community, being told to go away by the victim when trying to help with domestic abuse cases... It makes a lot of sense that police officers report sleep problems.

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Fekedulegn et al. (2016) took data from the Buffalo Cardio-Metabolic Occupational Police Stress (BCOPS) study to see if there was a relationship between the shifts – day, afternoon, night - that officers were working and their reported sleep quality. They study relied on a rich dataset with 15 years worth of well-documented shift details, and compared that with officers self-reported sleep quality.  What the study found was intriguing: 54% of officers reported poor sleep quality, 69% of those were working the night shift. As this study was conducted on specific population – the Buffalo, New York Police Department, these findings may not be representative of the entire nation, but nonetheless, the prevalence found in this study is incredibly concerning. Given what they do for our communities, our law enforcement ought to be getting some of the best sleep possible.

Irritable and tired officers going around may have graver implications than just a yelling match over whether a speeding ticket is justified.  Another study, though done in Europe, assessed the association between sleep quality and aggression (Freitag, Ireland, & Niesten, 2016). Low sleep quality predicted increased hostile attributions. While they could not show whether sleep quality predicted outright aggression, the significance of an increased likelihood to attribute hostility to the actions of others when applied to law enforcement is concerning if not downright upsetting.

It’s not hard to imagine a police officer overreacting in a potentially physically harmful manner towards a suspect after several night shifts; this could be a “good cop” too. One must not give in to the fundamental attribution error: a cop that steps out of line on a bad day is not necessarily a bad person, they may just be having a bad day. This isn’t an easy thing to accept for most people because when an officer steps out of line and harms someone it is indisputably worse than someone cutting another person in line because they are in a hurry. These kinds of discussions aren’t easy – especially when the wellbeing of our community is at stake.

 

So what is the upshot of all of this? We are in the midst of a politically volatile period. Sentiment towards law enforcement seems to be that of indifference or even the desire to have it abolished completely. The media portrays officers in a negative light (depending, of course, on what news you consume) and is harsh on officers when they make mistakes. This is not to say that one can write-off illicit activity by law enforcement, not at all. However the research in this area, though limited, ought to bring awareness to the reality that is faced by many officers. If anything, I hope, it opens one’s mind to other sides of the argument when considering the outcomes of police interactions with the community.

References

  1. Desta Fekedulegn, Dr, et al. "Shift work and sleep quality among urban police officers: the BCOPS Study." Journal of occupational and environmental medicine/American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine 58.3 (2016): e66.

  2. Freitag, Lara, Jane L. Ireland, and Isabella JM Niesten. "Exploring the relationship between sleep quality, emotional well-being and aggression levels in a European sample." Journal of aggression, conflict and peace research 9.3 (2017): 167-177.

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