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Impact of Sleep Deprivation on Police Performance

Date Published
January 5, 2009

Sleep deprivation is comparable to excessive drinking. A sleep deprivation study found that not sleeping for 17 hours impaired a person's motor skills to an extent equivalent to having an alcohol toxicity of 0.05 percent. Not sleeping for 24 hours was equivalent to a toxicity level of 0.10 percent.[1] This level of deprivation would impair speech, balance, coordination and mental judgment.

Sleep deprivation can cause work-related accidents. A study found that four out of eight officers involved in on-the-job accidents and injuries were impaired because of fatigue.[2] Such accidents include automobile crashes that were due to officers' impaired eye-hand coordination and propensity to nod-off behind the wheel. Other work related injuries come from accidents that occur when officers have impaired balance and coordination.

Research shows that fatigued officers:

  • Use more sick leave.
  • Practice inappropriate uses of force more frequently.
  • Become involved in more vehicle accidents.
  • Experience more accidental injuries.
  • Have more difficulty dealing with community members and other law enforcement agencies.
  • Have a higher likelihood of dying in the line of duty.[3]

Despite the impact of fatigue, many officers continue to work double shifts, triple shifts and second jobs. Some work well over 1,000 hours of overtime a year. Excessive work with inadequate rest over a long period of time can make officers sleep-deprived — 53 percent of officers report an average of 6.5 hours of sleep or less.[4]

Sleep Disorders and Law Enforcement Officers

With ever-changing schedules, overtime, and overnight shifts, it is not surprising that some police officers suffer from sleep disorders. Sleep disorders, which are typically associated with poor health, performance and safety outcomes, are twice as prevalent among police officers compared to the general public - and a new study suggests that they remain largely undiagnosed and untreated.[5]

Research on Sleep Disorders

Over an 18-month period, researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital, a teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School in Boston, gathered data on sleep disorders, health, and performance from almost 5,000 police officers in North America. The data showed that just over 40 percent of police officers screened positive for sleep disorders - almost double the 15 to 20 percent estimated rate of sleep disorders in the general population.

The most common sleep disorder was obstructive sleep apnea, affecting more than one-third of the officers (34 percent or 1,666 of 4,597 respondents). Moderate to severe insomnia came in second (7 percent or 281 of 4,298 respondents), followed by shift work disorder (defined as "excessive wake time sleepiness and insomnia associated with night work," affecting 5 percent or 269 of 4,597 respondents).

But the potential risks to officers — and the general public — due to fatigue are even more common than these findings suggest. According to the researchers, excessive sleepiness is common among police officers, whether they have sleep disorders or not. In fact, almost half of all participants (46 percent) reported having fallen asleep while driving. Approximately one-quarter (26 percent) reported that this occurs one to two times per month.

Date Published: January 5, 2009