WSU Criminal Justice Professor
Bryan Vila (left) and University of
Buffalo researcher John Violanti
study the health effects of fatigue
and stress in police officers.
(Doug Nadvornick photo)
During a recent lecture at WSU Spokane, Violanti noted that the average age of death for police officers in the U.S. is 67. That’s about 10 years younger than the average life expectancy for all American men.
Violanti believes the reason for the difference is not just the dangers involved with catching criminals, but also the unusual shifts that officers work.
To test the physical effects of those schedules, he and colleagues at WSU Spokane, the University of Buffalo and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control tested 464 of the Buffalo’s finest over a five-year period.
They took saliva and blood samples to measure cortisol, known as the body’s “stress hormone.” They had the officers fill out questionnaires about their jobs and lifestyles. They asked them to wear actigraphs to keep track of their body physiology on the job.
The result? Police who work graveyard and swing shifts are more likely to be tired on the job. As a result, they suffer a much higher rate of injury than their colleagues who work daytime schedules.
“Their lack of sleep affects their judgment,” said Violanti.
And that is having an effect on younger officers who are more likely to be assigned to work non-daytime shifts, he said. Many of them are experiencing effects like high blood pressure, diabetes and heart trouble earlier in life. In addition, “it’s my opinion that officers on the night shift have a crappy diet,” he said.
Some police departments are paying attention to the research, said Violanti and Bryan Vila, a WSU Spokane criminal justice professor who studies fatigue in officers and who is a co-investigator on the Buffalo project. Some are providing lifestyle training to their employees or building exercise rooms at the workplace.
But Violanti said other departments are ignoring the findings.
“Some departments don’t even let their officers take physicals,” he said. “They don’t want to know what they’ll find out.
“We’re hearing more from officers at the individual level,” he said. “Once they find out what this can do to them, they tend to want to do something about it.”
In Buffalo, he said, many officers have worked to lose weight. And 15 with severely clogged carotid arteries discovered during Violanti’s research were able to get medical attention before suffering strokes or other severe health episodes.
In the Spokane area, Vila said he is working with local police departments and their unions to help officers who work unusual schedules. He said Violanti’s research provides a sobering wake-up call.
“This is the first time anyone has gotten inside an occupation like this,” Vila said.
Violanti and Vila said they will continue to track the Buffalo officers for the next few years. They hope they’ll be able to learn enough to develop specific interventions that help officers.