Megan Brooks

June 14, 2016

DENVER — Fatigue associated with shift work can have a negative effect on how police officers interact with the public, a new study suggests.

Seasoned police patrol officers who worked day shifts were significantly more likely to manage simulated encounters with the public in ways that resulted in cooperation and were significantly less likely to have encounters escalate into violence compared with their peers working night shifts, the researchers found.

"Our results indicate that officers who work biologically normal day shifts perform much better than those on other shifts," lead investigator Bryan Vila, PhD, professor of criminal justice and criminology at Washington State University, Spokane, said in a statement.

"Cops get cranky when they're tired, just like the rest of us, but they are cranky people with guns and clubs," Dr Vila added in an interview with Medscape Medical News.

Dr Vila presented the study here June 12 at SLEEP 2016: 30th Anniversary Meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies.

Pervasive Problem

Chronic fatigue due to shift work, long hours, and sleep disruption is prevalent among police officers. Dr Vila and his colleagues assessed the effect of fatigue on tactical social interaction (TSI) in 50 experienced police patrol officers working day or night shifts.

In a controlled laboratory environment, the officers responded to 12 different TSI scenarios presented using a research-based high-fidelity computerized training simulators where they had to make critical decisions, including on use of deadly force. These scenarios had multiple branches, so each had the ability to end peaceably or escalate to violence based on officers' actions during the encounters.

"The day shift cops consistently performed better," Dr Vila told Medscape Medical News.

Compared with officers working night shifts, officers working day shifts were significantly less likely to have encounters spiral into violence (P < .001) and were significantly more likely to have TSI scenarios end in full cooperation (P < .001), the study found. Officers working the night shift were also less apt to formally introduce themselves to the people they encountered than the day shift officers.

"The negative impact of fatigue on TSI has significant implications in the current climate of police-citizen unrest, where perceptions of police legitimacy are low," the researchers conclude.

Dr Vila told Medscape Medical News the findings suggest that efforts to address fatigue among police officers might improve how they interact with the public, "and police chiefs around the country are starting to address this issue."

"A big part of the solution," Dr Vila said, "is having enough officers so they don't work overtime. People think overtime is a good deal because you don't have to pay extra benefits, but the risk of illness, accidents, early retirement or early death increase, which cost the public a lot."

Missing Emotional Cues

Commenting on the study for Medscape Medical News, Namni Goel, PhD, a sleep researcher at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine in Philadelphia, noted that the high-fidelity training simulator used in the study is "very realistic" and the finding that night shift officers weren't as good at the scenarios is "predicted because if you're on the night shift, you're not sleeping so well. Performing poorer as a night worker is something we've known for a long time."

The study is also interesting, Dr Goel said, in that it shows that social interaction might be affected by fatigue.

"When you are fatigued it's harder for you to read emotions and social cues, and that's really important for police interactions. We know from our own lab that if you are fatigued you don't pick up on emotional cues as well as when you are well rested."

The study was supported by the Department of Defense Office of Naval Research. The authors have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

SLEEP 2016: Annual Meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies. Abstract 0194. Presented June 12, 2016.

For more Medscape Neurology news, join us on Facebook and Twitter.


Comments on Medscape are moderated and should be professional in tone and on topic. You must declare any conflicts of interest related to your comments and responses. Please see our Commenting Guide for further information. We reserve the right to remove posts at our sole discretion.