It's a common scenario for many officers — albeit a dreaded one. You've been on shift all night. It's six o'clock in the morning and you're supposed to be getting off work in an hour.
Suddenly the call goes out over the radio, and the next thing you know you're at a crime scene making an arrest. Just like that, your long night just got a few hours longer. How are you going to get it all done so you can finally snag some well-deserved rest? With a long-suffering sigh, you open the glove box and reach for an energy drink.
The prevalence of highly caffeinated energy drinks has increased significantly in recent years. Where once a simple cup of coffee was the beverage of choice for officers in need of a boost, drinks like Red Bull and Monster have steadily risen to command a dedicated following among civilians and law enforcement personnel alike.
In 2010, an FDA survey revealed that more than 150 different energy drink products were sold in the United States, along with approximately 250 different varieties of energy shots — drinks that pack all the energy of a cup of coffee or more into a tiny, easily consumed package. For officers on the job, the easy portability and caffeine-laden kick offered by these beverages can be hard to ignore.
"The reality is that I'm seeing this more. I'm seeing guys supplement, trying to get more energy by using Monsters and 5-Hour Energies up to the hilt," says Mark Cronin, an elected director of the Los Angeles Police Protective League (LAPPL).
The LAPPL advocates for fair wages, benefits, and working conditions on behalf of police officers ranked lieutenant and below. For Cronin, keeping health at the front of the mind is paramount. He has spent 18 years working in the Los Angeles Police Department, and routinely handles workman's compensation, industrial injuries, and other health concerns for police officers in his department. In recent years, he's noticed a steady increase in the amount of energy drinks and caffeine being consumed by police officers in his department.
"It's not a big deal, every once in a while," he says, but adds that for many officers, consuming energy drinks is a regular habit rather than an infrequent occurrence. "Guys are mitigating. They're trying to mitigate their discomfort. They're trying to mitigate problems staying awake. And [they're] compromising their health long-term."
In June 2017, Cronin wrote an article that appeared on the LAPPL website in which he went over many of the detrimental and questionable effects of energy drinks.
The Problem of Energy Drinks
Bert Jacobson, Regents Professor at Oklahoma State University and the Associate Dean for Research at the College of Education, Health and Aviation, has done numerous studies on the effects of caffeine and other stimulants on the human body.
"At one point they started calling me Mr. Caffeine, because all of my research was on caffeine," Jacobson quips. "You'd think that because caffeine had been around forever, that it would've been thoroughly studied, but it hadn't."
Jacobson explains that caffeine is both a strong neurological stimulant and an addictive substance. While its effects can make those who use it feel more alert despite lack of sleep, prolonged use can lead the body to build up a tolerance and experience withdrawal soon after missing a dose. While these effects are relatively minor in low dosages, the sheer amount of caffeine present in most energy drinks is enough to make Jacobson worry — particularly among the law enforcement community, where situations can quickly escalate to the level of life or death.
In a recent study, Jacobson and his colleagues wanted to explore the effects of these extreme doses of caffeine and other stimulants on active-duty police officers. They assembled a sample group of 10 trained, accredited police officers, gave them each an energy drink and a gun, and measured the steadiness of their aim both before and after consuming a standard, over-the-counter energy drink.
"We asked them not to have consumed any caffeine for about a week," Jacobson explains, "to try to get them to wash out a little bit. And then we asked them not to eat before the study for about eight hours, because absorption occurs better on an empty stomach."
According to Jacobson, half of the officers received a 5-Hour Energy brand energy drink, while the other half received a caffeine-free placebo Jacobson had concocted from Kool-Aid, lemon juice, and sugar. After a period of detox, the officers came in again and the researchers switched which group received the energy drink and which received the placebo.
After consuming their drink and waiting approximately one hour to allow the caffeine and other stimulants to be absorbed by their bodies, the officers were given a BladesUSA rubber training pistol fitted with a laser sight. They were then asked to aim the pistol at a target situated approximately 12 feet downrange while the researchers recorded how steady the officers' aim was over time. Each officer's result was measured against his or her earlier results, which were taken before they consumed the energy drink or placebo.
Once the results had been analyzed, the researchers determined that those officers who had consumed the energy drinks were significantly less accurate in their ability to aim the weapon, compared to their counterparts who had consumed the placebo. These impairments occurred despite both the officers' high degrees of training and the enhanced feeling of wakefulness brought on by the stimulants.
"Based on these results it was concluded that consumption of an ES [energy shot] could compromise aiming accuracy and shot placement, thereby jeopardizing the health and welfare of law enforcement personnel," the study authors wrote in summary of their work.
This was not the only study that examined energy drink usage by people working in life-or-death situations. A 2010 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention measured the associations between energy drink consumption and sleep disorders among active-duty United States service members. The study found that service members who reported drinking three or more energy drinks per day were significantly more likely to sleep four or fewer hours per night than those who consumed zero energy drinks per day.
"This is a low number of hours of sleep even in the deployed environment, in which half of respondents averaged ≤5 hours of sleep," the authors wrote. "Because inadequate sleep can considerably influence a person's health, excessive energy drink consumption might indirectly contribute to poor health."
According to the FDA, 400 milligrams per day — about the equivalent of three to five cups of coffee — is a safe amount of caffeine for an average, healthy adult. Some energy drinks, however, can go as high as 570 milligrams of caffeine in a single serving. If police officers consume multiple such beverages in a single day, especially over the long term, it could have impacts on their health and well-being that have not yet begun to be understood.
Easing the Burden
To Jimmy Baldea, the founder and CEO of the American eHealth Collaborative (AEHC), which provides health solutions to police officers and other first responders, education and discussion are central to overcoming the concerns surrounding energy drinks in the law enforcement environment.
"It's a part of the life, just like a cup of coffee," he says. "Some people, instead of going with the coffee, they go with the energy drinks. It's a choice."
Where Baldea and the AEHC come in is when officers are unaware of the impacts various aspects of their lifestyle may be having on their health. His organization, which currently works with officers in the Los Angeles; New York City; and Yonkers, NY, police departments, focuses on giving police officers the tools and information they need to overcome any challenges they may be experiencing with regard to their health.
Baldea's team starts by first gathering a list of all officers in a department who are interested in improving their overall health, then sitting down with them to determine what their health goals are and how they can work to achieve them.
"Now we're gonna become the biggest pain imaginable," he says. "We talk to them about every little aspect of their lives…We take their vital signs on a daily basis. It's very intense, but we change lives."
Both Baldea and Cronin agree that for officers struggling with the need to consume energy drinks, addressing the underlying problems that prompt excessive caffeine consumption can be the most effective way of reducing dependence on highly caffeinated beverages.
For example, one of the things that Cronin believes to be a major culprit for high energy drink use — long-term graveyard shifts — can be significantly reduced simply by improving the level of awareness and discussion surrounding the topic. He described an officer he knew who had worked graveyard shifts for more than two decades who consumed energy drinks on a daily basis to get through the long nighttime hours.
"Frankly, it just reset his system, and his body," Cronin says. "He would still try to function through the day, doing the normal stuff that all of us need to do. And I would watch him falling asleep during shifts."
In addition to the need to get certain tasks done during the daylight hours, the poor food choices often available during late-night hours and the impact on natural circadian rhythms often have a severe negative impact on the health of officers who work night shifts for long periods of time.
"So after six months I almost think that someone should be looking for a shift change. But you've got guys who've been doing this for years," Cronin says. "I look at someone who's done graveyards after six months, and they're like a walking zombie. It's not healthy."
Cronin said he ran into this officer again after writing the article for the LAPPL website.
"He came up to me afterward and said, 'Mark, did you write that article specifically for me?'" Cronin recalls. "And he literally changed his shift."
To Cronin, the impact of better information is loud and clear. Make sure officers know the full impact of the decisions they are making, and let them do the rest.
Baldea agrees that as far as making a difference is concerned, education is one of the most important tools available to help police officers lead healthier lives.
"Police officers are of a rare breed," he says. "Meaning that if you provide them with information, they process that information. And 9.99999 times out of 10 they'll make a good decision."
Anthony Settipani is a Chicago-based freelance writer and a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism in Evanston, IL.