Sleeping Cops


It didn't take long for the embarrassing photo to spread around the internet and newspapers.

The image of a uniformed New York City Police Officer slouched on a subway bench, chin tucked into his chest and eyes closed, was quickly distributed to news outlets.

What can't be seen in the picture, taken Feb. 16, is the amount of hours that Officer Matthew Sobota, a 20-year veteran of the NYPD, logged in prior to his nap.

“I was tired,” a regretful Sobata told the New York Daily News. “I worked multiple tours.”

Sobota now faces department discipline which could take away some vacation days.

He wasn't the first officer to be caught sleeping. Last December, Christopher Heslop, a Canton, Ohio police officer, was photographed sleeping in his police cruiser at 2 am.

The picture was snapped by Sean Quinn, a civilian driving nearby, who said later that he was trying to signal with his headlights to the officer in order to draw his attention to a car accident a few hundred yards in front of the officer.

On Feb. 14, Heslop was issued a letter of reprimand.

Sleep deprivation has long been an issue for police officers. Irregular work hours? combined with shift changes that can drag on much longer than the standard eight- hour day—represent an occupational hazard.

A Viral Embarrassment

But the ubiquity of the Internet, which can turn a photo or video of a napping officer into a viral embarrassment, has forced many police departments to address public concerns: are sleeping cops a danger to the public's safety? and their own?

Martin Bisi, a music producer, who took the picture of Officer Sabota, explained his concern to the New York Daily News.

“I thought maybe a teenager could take (Sobota's) gun and sell it or use it,” he said. “I felt like it was potentially unsafe,”

Last December, a study conducted by Harvard researchers, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), suggested that police officers' lack of sleep could be a threat to the communities they serve.

Some 40 percent of the 5,000 municipal and state police officers surveyed were diagnosed with sleep disorders. According to the study, conducted over a two year period on site and online, officers who screened positive for sleep disorders had a 25 percent higher risk of expressing anger toward suspects and citizens—and 35 percent had a higher chance of having a complaint filed against them.

Officer Patrick Bowery, a midnight shift officer in his second year of service with the Chicago Police Department, understands how lack of sleep can affect his relationship with the community.

“When I get over tired I often become irritable and have less patience.” He said in an interview with The Crime Report. “At times I do become more confrontational and sometimes lose my temper easier than if I was well rested.”

Asleep At the Wheel

Perhaps an even bigger threat to community and the officers themselves is nodding off while driving police cruisers.

Sleeping at the wheel was the cause of Police Officers Francine Murphy's 1999 car accident in Broward County, Florida. Investigators found that Murphy was exhausted, fell asleep and ran a red light crashing her patrol car into a Sherriff's Office corrections van at 5 am.

Murphy was suspended for a week. A year later, the Margate City Commissioner settled a civil suit brought by the driver of the corrections van for $100,000.

In the same year, rookie Police Officer Donald Scalf, of the Cincinnati Police Department, was indicted for vehicular homicide after he hit and killed a jogger. Scalf reportedly fell asleep while driving home after finishing his midnight shift.

“I believe driving is the most dangerous part of the job,” Officer Bowery said. “We are in the car far more than anything else.”

“If I am not completely alert,” he continued,. “I am vulnerable to get into a traffic crash which could seriously harm or kill me.”

Compressed Schedules

Some departments have addressed the problem by developing “compressed” schedules, during which officers worked a ten-hour, four-day shift.

In a two-year study of two police forces which took that route (Arlington, TX and Detroit MI), researchers from the Police Foundation, a Washington-DC-based non-profit research group, found that officers working the compressed schedule “got significantly more sleep,” than their counterparts on normal shifts.

But longer shifts can also produce other problems. In the 1990's, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) instituted 10- and 12- hour shifts. Although the change was popular in the department, one LAPD officer confided there were worrying “side effects.”

“I am a full time vampire,” joked the officer who asked to remain anonymous. “Sleep during the day and wide awake at night.,”

The side effect, he said, included mood swings, insomnia, and bad eating habits.

The fact is, even a 12-hour shift doesn't fully reflect an officer's working day, the LAPD source said, pointing out that he is often required to put in extra time for court appearances.

“My shift goes from 18:30 to 06:30 without court or work related overtime,” he said. “Court can last from 08:30-16:30, and I might have to go back to work after court so my sleep might come in a short series of naps.”

The constant readjustment of his sleep scheduled has affected his health.

Running on Coffee

“There are days when I am on overtime I can feel my heart beating rapidly,” said the officer, who has been on the force four years. “At times I have not eaten properly and I'm running on coffee just to finish my arrest reports.”

In fact, the main reason for officer fatigue, according to cops themselves, is the additional hours spent in doing such non-police tasks—especially during off-duty hours.

One department that was concerned with finding a solution to the extra hours that can occur because of court appearances is the Ferndale Police Department.

The small department of 48 sworn officers in Michigan switched over to 12-hour shifts at the beginning of the year. But in an attempt to relieve the night shift platoon from the burden of court appearances the following morning, the city is implementing a night court.

Bryan Vila, professor at the of Criminal Justice at Washington Stat University and author of the book Tired Cops: The Importance of Managing Police Fatigue, says the concerns of LAPD officer and other cops about the effects of sleep deprivation are well-founded.

“The work hours of many professions, like airline pilots and truck drivers, are standardized and regulated,” noted Vila in an article for the National Institute of Justice.

“No such structure exists for police officers.”

Some departments have tried stricter regulations. In March 2001, the Albuquerque Police Department issued a rule forbidding officers from working more than 16 hours a day and 20 hours a week in overtime.

“The effect of sleep disorders and fatigue as it relates to public safety officials is a topic that has been ignored far too long,” then-Deputy Chief Raymond Schultz told CBS medical reporter Debbie Carvalko.

Arbitrary Rules

But setting hours according to arbitrary rules doesn't always work. In 2006, the small police department in Conway Arkansas, switched its 68 patrol officers from an 8-hour work shift to the 12-hour shift, and then found itself with a drop in morale.

“Our officers feel the 12-hour shift is detrimental to their sleep patterns (and) therefore their health.” Sergeant T. Glen Cooper stated in his shift work comparison report. “We have seen how sleep debt affects the body, and our officers are reporting fatigue.”

The one thing most officers and experts agree on is that there are no easy answers.

Vila, who spent 17 years with the LAPD, writes that when cops ask him “What's the best shift?” he answers, “That's the wrong question. The right question is: what is the best way to manage shift work, keep our officers healthy and maintain high performance in our organization?”

It's crucial, experts say, that individual officers first admit they have a sleep deprivation problem if they want to do something about it—and that can be hard.

“Some cops think it is a badge of honor to work long hours or be up for maximum hours,” Mark St. Hilaire, a Boston Police Patrol Sergeant, wrote in a recent blog post for Law Enforcement Today.

“This is insane, dumb, and unhealthy.”

And also dangerous to the public, says Bowery of the Chicago PD.

“We deal with many different situations where we have to make split second decisions that can mean the difference between life and death,” Bowery notes.

“I believe for us to be able to work at an optimal level we need to be well-rested.”

John Sodaro, a former NYPD officer now attending John Jay College, is the Spring News intern for The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.

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