As law enforcement officers, we discuss training, tactics, tools, the latest technology, and rehash after action details to glean all we can from our experiences on duty.  The thing that is remarkably absent is something many of us take for granted and don’t consider when we think about improving officer safety.

Sleep is as vital to life as food and water.  There have been innumerable studies on sleep deprivation and its effects on health, not to mention quality of life.  Some studies have even found that the effects of sleep deprivation mimic those caused by alcohol impairment.

I can personally attest to the “impaired” part!  I can still vividly recall one midnight shift when I was fighting to stay awake.  Coffee, getting out and walking around, keeping my windows rolled down for fresh air, even slapping myself didn’t overcome that wall I hit at o-dark-hundred in the waning hours of my shift.

I can still remember driving to check for burglaries and drifting over the centerline.  It truly scared me, yet I simply could not control the drowsiness.  There was a vehicle heading the opposite direction that called in, happily, but embarrassingly for me.

The dispatcher called a 10-4 check.  I answered, face flaming in embarrassment.  It did help me wake up enough to last until the end of the shift.  I was never so thankful when our department changed from rotating shifts every week, to permanent shifts.  It probably saved my life, if not that of someone else!

Sadly, a K-9 officer at our department was not so fortunate.  He was returning home from his midnight shift and fell asleep at the wheel.  It severely injured him and killed his K-9.  An additional factor is that he lived in a rural area about 30 miles from his duty area.  It was a long, boring drive back home and it impacted his life forever.

We must consider that if sleep deprivation has this effect on our driving, how does it impact the rest of the things we do and the decisions we must make? Much of our training with our firearms focuses on muscle memory.  This is a good thing, however, that presumes our ability to perceive the threat and the coordination to respond appropriately.

Sleep deprivation is known to cause irritability, poor cognitive function and even perceptual distortions, if severe enough.  Knowing this, the implications for officer involved shootings, how officers handle the public, as well as the effects on the officer’s home life and health are enormous.

One of the factors for the onset of PTSD in a given incident is sleep deprivation.  I can speak from personal experience that it also magnifies the symptoms of PTSD, which in turn causes further sleep disturbance.  It aggravates, if not causes chronic health issues, especially chronic pain.  Some studies suggest that it contributes to obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure.

How many officers end up burning out or become disciplinary problems due, in part, to sleep deprivation?  How many marriages and families of law enforcement officers are negatively impacted? It is a profound question when it is something as fundamental as simply getting sufficient sleep.

Most studies done indicate 7 to 9 hours of sleep is needed for optimal health.  We’ve heard the recommendations to have regular schedules, exercise and so on, to maintain healthy sleep cycles.

This doesn’t help much when departments implement rotating shifts to cover calls for service with a limited number of officers.  It doesn’t help with being keyed up after a shift, dealing with a “bad” call or dealing with the legitimate stresses of a spouse arising at inopportune times.

So where does that leave us in our search for sleep?   An excellent resource I have found is “On Combat” by Lt. Colonel Grossman.  Within this “bible” for warriors, he expertly discusses issues facing both military and law enforcement in their careers.

It includes understanding physiological and psychological processes in life or death situations.  Perhaps the most important is learning skills to prevent the onset of PTSD and keeping our edge for the long haul, which includes dealing with sleep disturbance.

One of the things that helped me is to understand why exercise is so important for healthful sleep.  Our profession contributes to an almost constant stream of adrenaline.  Burning off that fight or flight     chemical through exercise helps to unwind enough to sleep.

He also stresses the importance of professionally-managed critical incident debriefings and making peace with ourselves in order to get out of the loop of spiraling stress.  Dividing the sorrow and multiplying joy by sharing with others is one of my favorites of his recommendations.

Understanding the whys of what we experience and that often, the worries or symptoms we experience are normal reactions to abnormal situations goes a long way to give peace of mind.  Simply being able to “let go” lets our minds shut down for restful sleep.

When exercise, stress management and healthy eating are not enough to restore restful sleep, seeing a doctor is the next step.  One of the worst things to do for chronic sleep disturbance is to try to self medicate through alcohol, over the counter sleeping pills or pain medication.  This creates a vicious cycle of overcoming those side effects to be ready for duty, not to mention the risk of addiction.

Medical conditions including sleep apnea, can cause sleep disturbance and should be dealt with accordingly. On rare occasions, no cause can be found and a sleep specialist can be consulted.  They provide a myriad of services to deal with sleep disturbances, other than relying on sleeping pills.

I have personally found most sleeping pills to be as bad, if not worse, than just not sleeping.  Small amounts of melatonin and chamomile, staying on top of stressors and not watching news before bed has gone a long way for me.

In considering any medication, whether herbal, prescription or over the counter, it’s important to know medical conditions, drug interactions and side effects.  Taking steps to ensure our fitness for duty is a gift we give ourselves, our families, our fellow officers, and our communities.

Juli Adcock began her career in law enforcement with the Escambia County Florida Sheriff’s Office as a patrol deputy until she was injured in a riot situation. She transferred to Judicial Security and retired in 1998. Juli pursued career advancement training with an emphasis on officer survival, interviews and interrogation. She worked with a local Rape Crisis Center and in victim’s advocacy, complementing her college course work in psychology. She currently resides in New Mexico and is an instructor with The Appleseed Project  The Appleseed Project is a rifle marksmanship clinic teaching the fundamentals of firing an accurate round downrange every 3 to 4 seconds, out to 500 yards, as well as American history. She has trained military personnel at White Sands Missile Range who are certifying as Squad Designated Marksmen. Juli instructs basic handgun skills to new gun owners in preparation for responsible personal gun ownership and the Concealed Carry class for the State of New Mexico. She can be reached at [email protected]or through Law Enforcement Today.

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