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Randy Sutton

Randy Sutton is a 33-year law enforcement veteran, a trainer, and the national spokesman for The American Council on Public Safety. He served 10 years with the Princeton (N.J.) Police Department and 23 years with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, retiring at the rank of lieutenant. He is an author who has published multiple books on law enforcement.

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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.

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