Police are frequently required to appear in court to testify about cases that they have been involved in. For officers who spend their daytime hours in court, and spend their nighttime hours working shifts, lack of sleep could potentially affect their interactions with the public, according to a recent study. 

Researchers from Washington State University and Central Queensland University presented findings at the 32nd Annual Meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies last month that showed that public complaints against police officers were most prevalent during night shifts, and were often reported when officers worked back-to-back night shifts. The likelihood of complaints was particularly high when officers worked court hours between night shifts. An abstract of the study was published in an online supplement to the Sleep Research Society’s journal Sleep. The full paper was recently submitted for publication to the same journal.

For the study, the researchers analyzed data from a previous U.S. Department of Justice-funded study in which four police departments reported on a total of 32,712 shifts worked by 379 police offers. All four departments reported work hours and on-duty accidents, and two of the departments reported public complaints (for 15,744 shifts). A biomathematical model and the hours officers worked and rested were used to predict the officers’ fatigue levels and sleepiness levels.

Officers were predicted to be sleepier and more fatigued during night shifts. The study found that 68 percent of complaints against officers were reported on a night shift, and 58 percent of complaints came after an officer had worked a consecutive night shift the previous day.

“As fatigue continued to increase, the odds of a citizen complaint continued to increase, and similarly, as predicted sleepiness levels continued to increase, the odds of a citizen complaint continued to increase,” explained lead author Samantha M. Riedy, Ph.D. student at the Sleep and Performance Research Center at Washington State University Spokane, in an interview with Forensic Magazine.

Of the complaints that were made against officers working night shifts, 20 percent were preceded by court hours alone while another 20 percent were preceded by both court hours and a consecutive night shift.

“When night shift officers have to go to daytime court, they’re going at a time of day when they would otherwise be resting or recuperating between shifts. So the court hours are problematic for the night shift officers, or the officers working back-to-back night shifts, because they reduce sleep opportunity,” Riedy said.

On-duty accidents, however, could not predicted based on the data analyzed for this study, and would require a larger dataset to accurately predict, according to Riedy.

“Even though there weren’t a lot of complaints (37 total), there was still a large enough signal for the relationship to be picked up,” she explained. “There’s been some recent research conducted by some professors at Washington State University that indicates that greater fatigue is actually associated with how well the police officers are able to manage their encounters with the public, and their ability to de-escalate conflict.”

One potential way to improve energy and alertness for officers who work night shifts, and possibly reduce citizen complaints, is to implement an education program to help them better manage their work and rest hours, Riedy said.

“There’s an education program right now for handling shift work in nursing. It’s called the NIOSH Training for Nurses on Shift Work and Long Work Hours, and that’s currently being adapted for police,” she explained. “Another possibility would be the use of bio-mathematical models to predict fatigue or sleepiness, or performance on different rosters.”

Riedy also suggested ways to mitigate the impact of court appearances on sleep opportunities for night shift officers.

“A lot of times officers go to court but they don’t end up actually having to testify or appear in court. One possibility would be to have sleep rooms at the court, for example, so that if they’re not in court, then maybe they could sleep and recover for their next night shift,” she said. “Another one would be when any police department personnel coordinate with the courts, to try not to schedule court hours between consecutive night shifts, or maybe having officers come in later after night shifts or after court hours so they have more sleep opportunity between court hours and night shift.”