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Columns : In My Sights

You Are What You Sleep

Sleep deprivation can lead to sloppy tactics and a holiday tragedy for your family.

December 01, 2006  |  by Dave Smith - Also by this author

I will never forget the first time I heard myself snore. Yeah, I snore pretty good; just ask one of my ex’s or one of my sergeants. But I actually was so tired once my own snoring woke me up! I was working on the Coconino Hotshots fighting a forest fire near Prescott, Ariz., when our squad leader called a break. I just sat where I was on the line and, the next thing I knew, loud snoring awoke me. I looked around and I was the only one within earshot…weird. Yeah, I was really tired.

I had gone without sleep before but not so sustained a period of hard work with so little sleep, and I sure was glad I wasn’t making any hard life or death decisions.

Folks who study sleep say if we don’t get enough of it one of the first things to go is our decision-making skills and the more urgent the decision the more it is affected.

Now that should make law enforcement sit up and take notice, since we tend to make split-second decisions that often determine life or death and give Supreme Court justices things to think about.

Let’s face it, we work some strange hours. It doesn’t matter what assignment you have, crime fighting gives you plenty of chances to miss some major pillow time. I can remember many a long shift due to storms or alerts or accidents.

And then there’s the ever-brutal shift change. It isn’t just the hours of work on our shift that can cause us fatigue but how often we change it that can cause us sleep problems. I loved working midnights, but it provided plenty of opportunity for me to get behind on my sleep. It seemed that something was always coming up that meant I had to get up early and then there were those off-duty jobs and in my single days the whole chase-and-date thing.

One especially sleepless time of year is the holidays since it provides plenty of off-duty and overtime jobs to help pay for the credit card hit some of us take at the end of the year.
I bet every major department in the country could chart its citizen’s complaints and find a spike around the holidays. We write it off to a lot of things but, in many sleep deprivation studies, the first two symptoms are irritability and poor decision-making. In my case that easily explains why I said a couple of things on traffic stops that in retrospect seem a bit, shall we say, biting?

On top of everything else, not only is our mind affected by lack of sleep, but the body experiences a greater risk of illness and a powerful fatigue. Too many officers have been injured or killed when they failed to exit the vehicle when talking to a subject or just stood in the doorway and rang the doorbell when they knew better. This is what fatigue does: It makes good tactics seem like such an effort. After all, it’s so much easier to just sit here and have that suspicious-looking fellow walk over to my vehicle and give me his ID than get out and walk over there.

My holiday wish for you is that you get the sleep you need. But when you can’t, remind yourself you need to go the extra mile, put in the effort, even when shift change or storms or extra jobs have stolen critical sleep time from you. I don’t want to read about the tragedy of another cop being killed or injured this holiday season.

Dave Smith is the creator of “Buck Savage” and a retired law enforcement officer from Arizona. Currently, he is the lead instructor for Calibre Press’ “Street Survival” seminar.

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