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Mark Clark

Mark Clark

Mark Clark is the public information officer for a law enforcement agency in the southwest. He is also a photographer and contributor to POLICE Magazine.
Patrol

Dangerous Shifts

For officers working it, graveyard shift can sometimes live up to its name.

February 01, 2008  |  by - Also by this author

Third watch. Early morning shift. Graveyard shift.

By any name, shift work has its unique inherent dangers. Few dangers are wholly unique to a particular shift, but some are more apt to be experienced on one shift than another. Bank robberies and their attendant shootouts—such as North Hollywood's infamous engagement—tend to occur on day shift. Meanwhile, night shift officers are more likely to become involved in shootings.

Yet perhaps the most insidiously dangerous shift—at least in long-term implications—is the early morning, or graveyard, shift.

Besides having to deal with larger numbers of intoxicated drivers, officers working graveyard have to worry about some of the less obvious dangers, the ones that operate stealth-like but whose mortal implications assert themselves in due time.

A study by the World Health Organization found that night shift work increases the risk of cancer in humans. The study found that prolonged nocturnal work schedules create higher risk for breast and colon cancer development in women. Their male co-workers aren't spared, either; they are more likely to experience prostate cancer.

But then, anything that interferes with the human body's circadian rhythms and compromises our sleep habits has got to have its costs. Not only does such work impede the immune system and reduce melatonin production, but it may also actually alter genes, leading to the development of abnormal cells.

While many cops end up working early mornings due to their lack of seniority, others actually work the shift out of personal preference. Like badged Van Helsings, they find it an easier time to track down society's bloodsuckers and parasites.

In any event, personnel assigned to early morning shifts need to be particularly vigilant about their sleep. More than one officer has died near the end of his shift or on the way home due to exhaustion.

It's not like we haven't noticed it, either. How many times have we pulled over a suspected DUI, only to find that the driver was a cop on his way home from the late shift who was less in need of sleeping it off than just sleep? Is it any wonder so many of them spend their r.d.o.'s like modern-day Rumpelstilskin?

In fact, the compromised states of sleep deprived individuals have proven fateful in many of history's man-made disasters. Accidents at Bhopal, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and the Titanic all occurred during the "graveyard shift": between 11:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m.

Yet I've known some supervisors who took painstaking pride in tracking down graveyard cops and writing them up for "batcaving"—catching some z's on the company dime. I didn't have to worry about it. In 25 years, I rarely took a nap on the job. Even then it was usually when I was under the weather and shouldn't have been at work in the first place. Nor did I ever get caught or written up for it. But I knew more than a few who did.

Some had it coming. They requested to work the shift, and had no problem screwing over taxpayers by double-dipping on their sleep.

But there were others that I knew damned well didn't want to work the shift and whose mental and physical health were compromised by doing so. That there is continued insensitive shoehorning of cops into shift work without any concession to compassion or reality is something that still pisses me off.

As a young man I worked "earlies"—as we in LASD referred to graveyard shift—and it kicked my ass. This, despite having converted my abode into Castle Dracula status and soundproofing the bedroom. And when I did sleep during the day, I'd have work-related dreams so that it felt like I was working 24/7.

Cops are beholden to notions such as "better to be tried by 12 than carried by six" and "if it comes down to me waking up the next morning or the next guy, it's gonna be me." Such romantic notions of taking an active role in our personal welfare can be completely offset when that apocryphal "other guy" is our own worst enemy: ourselves.

Perhaps the most worrisome demographic is the younger "go get 'em" aggressive cops who not only work graveyard, but attend court in the morning before further burning themselves out playing weekend warrior. Eventually, it all takes a toll. And sometimes, there are collateral casualties.

So if you find yourself burning the candle at both ends, perhaps it's time to shift your priorities—and your shifts.


Comments (5)

Displaying 1 - 5 of 5

Ofc.RachelT @ 2/4/2008 12:02 AM

You're right on Mr. Scoville...It is very difficult for me (with a family) to work third shift and try to switch to a first shift schedule on my r.d.o.'s. I know it's bad when I pass out for 14-16 hours straight after staying up 36 to 38 hours (combination of work and family life). I am actively seeking a way to switch shifts because I've been doing the graveyard for over two years with an ungodly sleep deficit. I know it's not good! Good article bro...

Jeff22 @ 2/4/2008 2:59 AM

I've been on nights (through 5 different jobs) since August of 1977. By choice. I'm a night person. There are a few of us (15% of the population maybe?) that can make that adjustment fairly easily. And there are many other people that simply cannot, no matter what they do.

We were just discussing this at work the other night. In the county I work, we don't have to do "in person" intake at the DA's office after misdemeanor or felony arrests. We don't have court time unless we have a pre-trial conference or a preliminary hearing or an actual trial, so working all night and being at court or the DA's office all day is a more random occurance.

I think that's a good thing, although it limits the amount of overtime that one might otherwise accumulate. I like the extra cash more than most anybody, but there is a limit on how many hours you can work week after week.

And to be honest, if I'm working with somebody and they're having a bad night and they need to go "hide" someplace for 35 minutes or so to get a nap and recharge so they can hang on until daylight, I don't have a problem with it. (I don't remember the source right now, but there was a study of shift workers within the last few years that recommended a brief nap between 0300 and 0500 to improve alertness & overall health).

There are lots of guys & gals who work all night and then go home to babysit all day everyday. I don't know how they manage that week after week.

tgis81 @ 2/6/2008 2:31 PM

Great article. I work midnight shift (as it is referred to in my agency 10:30- 07:00). My sleeping pattern (if you can even call it a pattern) is always different. Expecially on my days off. Normally when I get home after my last night on for the week, I can not sleep until the late evening that night. This throws me way off into an almost normal sleeping pattern. Then I try to stay up all night my last night off so that I'm not useless when I return to work. I also have a lot of "work related" dreams (as mentioned in the article) when I'm sleeping during the day, which I never used to have when I was working evening shift.

However, I do like working at night and would rather be on this shift than evening or day shift. I'm mrerly commenting to agree with what the article and others have said. I appreciate hearing of all the research.

My agency, unfortunately, DOES require us to appear in person to meet with the prosecuting attorney, so if you make an arrest during the night, you are going to have to be at court the very next morning. Plus, if you need to get any new equipment/uniforms from property division, you have to do it during the day. If you have trouble with your portable radio, you have to take it to get worked on during the day. Etc, etc etc. This does a great job to stack up the sleep deprivation. But the officials don't consider that when an officer has a work related vehicle accident because they havent slept for several days due to department appearances. And you can't call off sick just because you need sleep - plus you have to go to the department clinic the next day (during day shift of course) if you do call in sick, so you lose sleep there too.

One good thing though... most of the officers and sgt's on my shift are great to work with.

mdor0914 @ 2/18/2008 12:08 PM

My department switches shifts every 4 months. Nobody gets locked in. I am a night person and if forced to choose, I would rather work nights. Days however is better for the family. Everything is a trade off.

One morning just a few weeks after a new Chief taking over the department, I was working while very sick and running a very high fever. I should have been at home. At one point I got very dizzy and was a danger on the road. I decided to go "hide" and take about an hour nap. Thought maybe I could kick it, if not would have to go home for the day. Anyway at about 6:00am while I was sleeping in my patrol car, who should drive up on me but our new Chief. I thought I was as good as dead. After my explaination, he assured me that it was ok. "Everybody has a rough shift now and then", and "I appreciate you sticking it out" were the only comments he had for me. I was very lucky, I know not everyone is as fortunate. Understanding goes a long way when managing shiftworkers.

PUNISHER @ 2/25/2008 12:59 AM

Some can do it, some can't. Most everyone has had to experience a night shift or the midnight oils at least once in their career. Personally I enjoy it. My biggest problem hasn't been court, supervisors, or work related problems due to lack of sleep and the midnight shifts, its John Q. Public, friends, and family. God bless them for their ignorance. Someone who has never stayed up 4 in a row on 12 hours shifts w/ 4-5 hours of sleep in between max (and that's a GREAT day), just doesn't understand. The phone doesn't stop ringing sometimes. Just laying down for a good afternoon, pre-work nap and someone stops by to chat or calls. Or when on days off, everyone else asks "why were you up so late last night?" while they were sleeping like babies. Up late? Its mid-day for me. As stated, God bless them for their ignorance. Several things help me such as proper diet, exercise, reading, and just plain getting away from the job on days off. Recharging batteries is a must. Spot on info and experiences. Remember...someone has to cover that shift. Someone has to be the person to sacrifice a little more "normal" life to work the dreaded mightnight shift. Its always a risk healthwise and safety wise. But so is the life of a cop. Risk nothing, gain nothing. That is all.

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