The city of Kittitas, Wash., recently implemented a 48-hour work schedule where officers work two 24-hour days on duty, followed by four days off. Their approach was quickly followed by the Jonesville Police Department in Michigan.
“This model is used in (the state of) Washington and is successful,” said Kurt Etter, director of Jonesville’s utility department. “The officer has built downtime similar to the fire department. The flexibility afforded by this schedule allows a smaller department to compete with larger agencies for the same small pool of applicants.”
But could this work schedule work in all law enforcement agencies? Read our columnists’ take on this issue and share your thoughts below.
The basic rules: As in a real debate, sides for and against are randomly assigned as an exercise in critical thinking and analyzing issues from different angles.
Our debaters: Jim Dudley, a 32-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department where he retired as Deputy Patrol Bureau Chief, and Chief Joel Shults, EdD, who retired as Chief of Colorado police.
Joel Shults: One of the prominent coaches I had the privilege of knowing, I can’t remember who and they probably robbed him anyway, said the cops only complained about two things: the way the things are and change. We talk about innovation, reinvention and the “r” word (reform), but major changes from what has always been done, like the proverbial battleship that turns around, take a lot of time and miles. Playing around with shift patterns is worth the experience.
There are only two questions about the shift schedule. One is whether the job can be done, and the other is whether the workers have the ability to do the job. If planning is created with only one of these in mind, the other necessarily suffers.
Station living on a 48-hour availability schedule seems to have obvious advantages, the most important of which is recovery time during non-working days. The hours or days it takes to normalize the body and mind of police officers are probably much longer than most of us realize. Time for restorative relaxation, doing chores, spending quantity and quality time with loved ones, eating normally, and allowing body chemistry to recover from the constant drip of adrenaline is a work/life cycle with which most can live.
Research shows that police officers have a shorter life expectancy than the general population. Other studies show that firefighters fare much better after retirement than cops. While there are many variables that make comparing these occupations irrelevant, schedule and lifestyle comparisons persist. Work schedules can be one of those things that slowly kills cops. If 48-hour policing contributes to healthier minds and bodies, we won’t have statistical proof for decades. But why not try?
Jim Dudley: I know plenty of cops who would love to live the life of a firefighter: 48-hour shifts, workouts, cooking, big-screen TVs, and lounge chairs. But seriously, the idea of an officer working a 48-hour shift wouldn’t work in most cases. The story that hails 48-hour shifts as a success is that of a five-person department. I haven’t seen the city’s population, or any estimates of service calls over a 24 hour period, but in most places those numbers would lead to staff burnout.
Sure, about 75% of all departments in the United States have an average of 25 or fewer officers, but there are patrols, checks, and calls for duty that keep officers on the streets. In a large metropolis, some agents are lucky enough to have breaks and a meal period. Imagine climbing into the bunk after a 12 hour shift, only to be woken up for an emergency call. Repeat this multiple times when you’re supposed to sleep on your shift and you create a real problem.
Dr. David Black, Founder and President of Cordico, has repeatedly spoken about the value of sleep on my podcast, Policing Matters. Disruptions in sleep patterns can cause real psychological problems and cause effects similar to those of someone under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
The real security issues multiply when an officer is required to conduct a pursuit, check a resistant suspect, or resort to the use of his firearm. Lack of sleep has a cumulative effect that cannot be corrected by naps.
I’m not sure it’s “worth a try”. In a profession where the effects of PTSD are widespread and home life can be strained, experimenting with officers separated from their families for days at a time can only exacerbate problems. In one experiment, the situation would be artificial, with participants having to be “at work” even during periods of rest or off duty. There would always be an expectation of being on call, and a sense of duty to respond, when called.
I didn’t realize the weight of being “always in service” until I left the service. It took weeks after my retirement before I finally felt totally relaxed. It took some separation time before I stopped “listening” to a radio call or cell phone notification. Yet when I was on active duty, when my watch ran out, I couldn’t wait to get back in my car and drive home to my wife and kids.
Joel Shults: I identify with your transition! I tell people I’m a recovering first responder, and while I suppose there are those who can drop everything at some point, I’m not one of them. The benefits noted in existing Police1 articles are reported optimistically by, as you point out, small agencies where covering all clock hours is a mathematical impossibility. For these agencies, the plan makes sense. I agree that there are doubts that large agencies get the same efficiencies. However, what is great about large departments is their ability to do internal research.
I would encourage experimentation with some teams or constituencies to compare response times, overtime costs, morale, and time off between a 48 hour store and whatever is normal for their agency. We mostly touched on fatigue issues, but the other factor I mentioned earlier is whether the agency’s job is being done.
Part of a schedule change would be a review of audience expectations and a more efficient dispatch of the workforce. Perhaps random patrols can be scaled back to allow more respite time at station or use NCO personnel to field non-emergency calls or any of the other efficiencies being explored in light of officer shortages Across the country. Anything that has a glimmer of hope for improving the lives of officers while improving essential policing deserves a day in the sun.
Jim Dudley: Again, there are so many variables to consider to make the 48 hour watch work. There are considerations of compulsory overtime situations, planned or spontaneous incidents and events, and court appearances. I see a remote possibility that the 48 hour shift will work, but all the planets would need to be aligned for it to work in the short and long term. Without the infrastructure, the experiment is doomed. The agency should provide accommodations, with dedicated personal space for each officer, not like a submarine where sailors would swap berths while the clocks ticked. The example of the fire station is a start.
Then it is to be expected that the hours of “sleep and rest” will not be disturbed, without any possibility of interruption, without exception. If these contingencies were in place, the ideal candidate would be a single officer, ready to devote to the 48 hours of work. Those with long commutes to their agency would also benefit. There should be an assessment carried out at regular intervals by mental health professionals to determine any adverse physical or mental health effects.
Joel Shults: I think your last thoughts are an area of agreement here. This provision is experimental and therefore deserves all the methodologies of an experiment. The final proof of its value will be found in long-term data – health, morale, response times, costs and, most importantly, the quality of service provided to the public. Let’s keep an eye on how it fares with the agencies using it.
Police1 readers respond
I don’t think that’s a good idea. Firefighters stay in the barracks much longer than a policeman spends at his HQ. Firefighters have a lot more downtime than police officers. When not on duty, firefighters can sleep and eat in the barracks. Police officers don’t get a lot of downtime and working that many hours just isn’t healthy for them.
I will have to join Jim Dudley in this debate. Our job is to protect our communities, which means we patrol all hours of the night, being proactive, not reactive. Our random patrols reassure residents that we are there to protect them.
Probably not an achievable timeline. Working 8s and 10s now, there’s rarely time for a real lunch break, so a 48 would look a lot like that because there’s never enough body for everyone. It would take real scheduling acrobatics.
- Absolutely not. I’ve worked with fire units many times, I have respect for them, but it’s just not the same kind of work. When you’re tired, it’s much easier to make poor decisions and slow reactions. Firefighters can do this because they’re basically sleeping unless called. The police are on patrol the entire shift.
- No. Stress levels for law enforcement are much worse than for firefighters.
- It depends where the officer is. NYC, that wouldn’t work, especially when a car responds to 30-40 drops per shift.
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