By Captain Jon Sundermeier, Lincoln, Nebraska, Police Department
ork schedules based on a 12-hour shift are not yet commonplace in the law enforcement profession, but it is not hard to find agencies that have implemented them. The pros and cons of this scheduling alternative are often a matter of speculation for law enforcement executives looking for different ways to deploy scarce resources. This article offers a more objective look at 12-hour shifts based on a number of measures, including officer satisfaction, overtime, sick leave use, and employee performance measures.
One advantage of the 12-hour shift is that it provides excellent coverage during peak times—typically late afternoon and evening and on into the early morning hours on weekends. A day shift and a night shift provide basic coverage for 24 hours, while another group of officers is scheduled from early afternoon to early morning hours. Staggered start times allow for constant coverage at the beginning and end of shifts. Although it is possible to build a schedule that provides similar coverage with 8- or 10-hour shifts, or a combination of both, the result is usually more complicated and unwieldy.
Twelve-hour shifts were implemented on a trial basis by the Lincoln Police Department (LPD), an agency with over 300 sworn personnel, in one geographic team area in Lincoln, Nebraska, a city of 230,000. Thirty-seven officers and supervisors were affected, while the rest of the department remained on the more traditional 8-hour shifts, sprinkled with some 10-hour shifts. The police union had been indifferent or resistant to the idea for several years but consented to a year-long trial. The department and the union reached an agreement on contract issues, and the schedule was constructed with input from the union. The department looked at several different schedules involving rotating days off but, based on employee preferences, ultimately adopted a schedule with three fixed days off and one “pivot” day (Saturday).
The 12-hour shift schedule implemented by the LPD provided a day off for every day worked. During a two-week pay period, an additional four hours of flextime were built into the schedule. Rather than scheduling this time, officers were allowed to take it at any time during the pay period, in whatever increments they chose, as long as it had supervisory approval.
Several areas of concern were identified prior to implementation, including officer fatigue, court scheduling, and the impact the schedule might have on case management and quality of service.
The department operates on a generalist officer theory—street officers are solely responsible for all but the most serious cases. With officers off duty for three or four days per week, there was also some concern that they would lose touch with beat activity, a key component of community policing.
Department leadership brainstormed and developed strategies to address each concern. The key to successful implementation of any new strategy is to anticipate and plan ahead, and this venture was no exception. The potential for a negative impact can often be lessened or eliminated if a positive approach—“How can I make this work?”—is adopted rather than a negative approach—“This won’t work because . . . .”
Fatigue: Police officers are used to the occasional long shift, but when 12-hour days became the norm, the concern shifted to managing the calls that might extend the shift into overtime. Meaningful rest, which most health experts agree includes uninterrupted sleep, is the key to working long shifts successfully. Sleep was identified as a priority, as was the need to avoid protracting the work shift any more than was absolutely necessary.
Supervisors played a key role in managing calls that came near the end of the shift, holding some and stabilizing others until fresh officers were available to work the call and complete reports. Officers were encouraged to manage their calls and to notify supervisors if a late call was likely to extend into overtime. The resentment that some officers might feel when someone appears to be ducking work was replaced with the realization that other officers would do the same for them at the end of the shift.
Court Appearances: Court appearances frequently disrupt officers’ sleep, so the department opened a dialogue with the clerk of the court and prosecutors. The court employees who were directly responsible for scheduling were brought into the loop, resulting in a system that factored in optimal court days and times and was sensitive to officers’ sleep schedules. Court notices were monitored for multiple appearances between shifts, and arrangements were made to reschedule appearances when a conflict arose.
Case Management: Traditional night shift scheduling makes follow-up investigations difficult, but every officer on the 12-hour shift worked hours conducive to conducting investigations. The department’s major concern was that with more days off, cases would not be investigated in a timely fashion, and crime victims would be frustrated with the larger gaps in communication. A system was devised to identify significant cases, and secondary follow-up assignments were given to officers who had the opposite days off. Crime victims were informed of officers’ work schedules at the time of the initial report, so they had realistic expectations about when officers would be getting back in touch with them.
At the end of six months, the LPD completed an analysis of the 12-hour shifts. All 37 officers and sergeants participated in a survey that measured their perceptions and levels of satisfaction with the schedule. It should be noted that all of the employees assigned to 12-hour shifts voluntarily bid into the schedule, so all of them were predisposed in favor of the schedule.
Survey results indicated fatigue is a factor for officers, but not to the degree that it affected job performance:
- All respondents (100 percent) felt they were able to perform all police functions.
- When asked if they had ever become so tired during a shift that they were unable to function normally or safely, 87 percent disagreed.
- When asked about how rested they felt after returning from days off, 82 percent of officers said they were “very rested,” 9 percent felt “somewhat rested,” and an additional 9 percent found no difference from previous schedules.
- In more general terms, 75 percent reported being “somewhat tired” after a shift was over, 6 percent reported being “very tired,” and the remainder reported no fatigue at all.
- When queried about their ability to work additional hours, 42 percent felt there was no difference, 40 percent said they were “somewhat less able” to work beyond a 12-hour shift, and the rest were “significantly less able” to work overtime.
- Over half of the respondents (56 percent) said they were less tired on their days off.
Perceptions of general mood and disposition—an important factor in shift work and police work—were also very positive:
- In terms of general mood, 77 percent rated their mood “very good” and 22 percent were “fine.”
- Positive changes had been noticed by the families of 77 percent of respondents.
Officers and their supervisors worked identical shifts, often not the case on other schedules. About half the officers reported an improvement in their level of supervision, and all employees were very satisfied with the “squad concept”—always working with the same sergeant and the same group of officers.
Almost all the officers polled felt they had adequate opportunities to take time off, including flextime.
The poll also measured work schedule preferences: 84 percent felt their work schedule had improved, and fully 100 percent wanted to continue working the 12-hour shift.
Sick Leave and Overtime
After the 12-hour shift was implemented, sick leave use initially decreased, but by the end of 2006, it had rebounded to slightly more than the average of 1,912 hours used by the same police team in the three previous years. Some of the departments that the LPD contacted while planning implementation of the new shifts reported an overall decrease, but this was not the case in the first year of implementation in Lincoln.
The number of employees in the test group represented only about 12 percent of the total commissioned workforce, so it is difficult to draw meaningful conclusions about sick leave use from this small sample over the period of only one year. One serious injury or illness can have a large impact on a small test group, and, in fact, one LPD officer missed several months of work after a serious car accident. An examination of sick leave use over a period of several years would yield more meaningful results.
Overtime use was found to be more or less static, but there was a significant change in three areas:
- A 38 percent drop in overtime taken as comp time, which translates to more overtime dollars but less time off taken by officers. In a chronically understaffed department, this can be beneficial.
- A 46 percent increase in overtime for court. In departments that pay more for court appearances on an officer’s day off, more days off translates into more court overtime.
- A 51 percent decrease in the amount of overtime paid to complete reports.
In examining disciplinary records, the department found no change in the rate of discipline. There were no complaints or disciplinary actions related to the longer work shift.
Productivity measures were also examined. Overall, measures of proactive policing such as traffic tickets and intelligence reports remained at the same levels. Some officers reported a new enthusiasm for the job with the 12-hour shifts that had a measurably positive effect on their work output, but there was no evidence that satisfaction with the work schedule affected the total output of the team.
A similar result was noted when the quality service audit (QSA) data were examined. The QSA is a telephone survey of people contacted by the department to determine their perceptions of officers. After analyzing three years’ worth of data, the department noted a 4 percent drop in the number of people who rated officers’ performance as average or above average. This slight increase in the number of respondents that rated officer performance below average may be statistically insignificant but clearly marks this as an area to be watched in the future.
Survey results also indicated an increase of about 10 percent in the number of officers who recontacted crime victims. The issue of communication with crime victims, an area of concern prior to implementing the schedule, had shown measurable improvement. However, this might have been due, at least in part, to the emphasis placed on the importance of communicating with crime victims in squad meetings at the beginning of the year. This result highlights the importance of continued discussion of expectations with employees.
Officer perceptions of the 12-hour shift were extremely favorable. Two of the 37 officers reported that before implementation of the new schedule, they were actively looking for a career change. The 12-hour shifts provided the right balance in their lives and renewed their enthusiasm for police work. Job satisfaction and morale are extremely high with this group of employees. This reaction is not likely to be universal, however, as these participants had positive expectations going into the schedule change and bid into the schedule by choice. In the department as a whole, a significant number of employees have a negative view of the schedule, though the schedule has sparked growing interest and may be expanded within the department.
The employee survey also indicates that 12-hour shifts have a mitigating effect on the negative aspects of shift work. Officers report being more rested and ready to return to work after days off but also note there is little time for anything but work during their work days. A more scientific approach might provide more conclusive data, but the survey and employee comments suggest that in addition to being happier, 12-hour shift workers are probably healthier as well.
Before implementation, the main concern was whether 12-hour shifts would have a negative impact on the quality of the service provided by the department. Objective data suggest that it does not. There was no negative fiscal impact, and a trend toward less sick leave use was noted.
Good managers always look for ways to improve employee job satisfaction that do not adversely affect the organization’s mission. For a significant number of police officers, 12-hour shifts have proven to be a dramatic improvement and a viable scheduling alternative. ■
Captain Jon Sundermeier has 21 years’ experience in the law enforcement profession and is currently assigned as the commanding officer of the Lincoln Police Department’s Northwest Team. He is a recent graduate of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Academy.