City Attorney Jim Hahn may have locked up the mayoralty the day he embraced the L.A. Police Protective League’s (PPL) demand for a three-day week of 12-hour shifts. The police union‘s endorsement and its attack ads against ex-Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, who would not commit to the so-called 3-12 workweek, made Hahn credible as the “public safety” candidate and the safe choice for conservatives.

But is Hahn’s victory enough to lock in city approval of the compressed work schedule? While the mayor-to-be made a post-election pilgrimage to a PPL meeting in Palm Springs to promise 3-12 within three months, and last week extracted a reluctant assent from Chief Bernard Parks (a longtime doubter), it‘s not yet a done deal. The City Council’s approval is required, and several council members, including public-safety committee chair Cindy Miscikowski, harbor doubts about whether the new schedule would work during high-crime periods or undermine community policing.

However, the new council presents the PPL with a less daunting hurdle than the outgoing one. Newcomer Janice Hahn is hardly likely to break with brother Jim on his top agenda item. Skeptics Mike Feuer and Jackie Goldberg are out; the latter‘s replacement, Eric Garcetti, leans strongly toward 3-12 as a recruitment and retention incentive. Tough-minded Councilwoman (now city controller) Laura Chick, no pushover for the police viewpoint, has been replaced by Dennis Zine, a member of the PPL board of directors. Newcomer Jan Perry says she is “skeptical but open to discussion,” an attitude shared by several holdover members. Mark Ridley-Thomas, for instance, fears that a compressed schedule may harm his crime-plagued district “by compromising deployment and the exercise of sound judgment by officers on patrol.”

Before the council acts, it will want to review a 60-day study by Police Management Consulting of San Diego; the contract was signed this week. Among topics the consultant will examine are how compressed schedules work in other police departments and possibly fatigue-related safety questions.

Without any exhaustive review of other forces’ experience, L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca has quietly approved possible expansion of its use in his department. When Baca signed off on 3-12 arrangements at the department‘s quarterly management conference last fall, he did have one long-running experiment to guide the decision — a “pilot project” now in its seventh year at West Hollywood’s Sheriff‘s station. Patrol units there (119 sworn personnel) and 29 supporting civilians work either 6 a.m.–6 p.m. or 6 p.m.–6 a.m. shifts, though detectives and special-problems units handling such matters as vice, transients and surveillance put in four 10-hour stints.

Several audits showed that quality of service and arrest levels were maintained after the transition, says Captain Linda Castro, West Hollywood’s commander, and citations went up slightly. There was no sign, she adds, of any increase in sick calls or civilian complaints. “We looked at timing — were complaints up at the end of shifts? We didn‘t see that.” However, Castro concedes, neither the frequency nor the timing of use-of-force incidents was examined.

This track record convinced Baca that other stations should be allowed to try 3-12, says Assistant Sheriff Dennis Dahlman, but only where it fits community needs, a decision left to station commanders. So far none has signed on to the program — few of the areas served by the sheriff need the nocturnal policing of Sunset Strip or share the bars-per-block level of WeHo’s Santa Monica Boulevard.

But if Sheriff Baca‘s move was a big step forward for the three-day week, a retreat was signaled last month by Pasadena’s Police Chief Bernard Melekian, who expanded a on misgivings published recently in a public-safety newsletter. While conceding pluses (morale, time for school attendance), Melekian offered a longer list of drawbacks, including overtime, fatigue and communication lapses between personnel on different shifts. But his primary objection is subtler and less measurable: disengagement from the community and the “calling.”

Though 3-12 has been in place for all patrol officers (more than a third of the city‘s sworn personnel) since late 1993, the schedule “needs to be and will be revisited,” Melekian told the Weekly. “Our philosophy that community policing is everyone’s job” doesn‘t jibe with spending four days a week outside the city, he said. “If I could do it legally, I’d make [3-12] available only to officers who live in the city,” he said. Since that‘s not possible, the chief will soon be urging transition to a 4-10 regime. This may be an uphill battle. Once conceded, “You’ll never be able to take it away,” warns Captain Gordon Bowers of neighboring Burbank, where 3-12 was won at the bargaining table six years ago.

Union leaders in the Police Protective League say the compressed schedule and shorter workweek are the key to repairing the department‘s plummeting morale and reducing attrition on the force.

“We’re losing 58 officers a month, and only training 24,” says Detective Bob Baker, a PPL board member. But in weighing decisions on schedules, departments that have okayed 3-12 have given little systematic scrutiny to its safety for the public — or for the officers themselves — focusing primarily on productivity, budget impact and employee satisfaction. Scientists studying performance and fatigue in the workplace raise red flags over safety issues, suggesting that alertness, judgment and mood can deteriorate with extended hours, especially on long night shifts.

Scientists at government agencies, colleges and consulting firms have been studying shift-work stress, safety, exhaustion and efficiency in various venues since the early 1980s. Trained in little-known fields such as chronobiology, ergonomics or aerospace medicine, they publish in even lesser-known periodicals like the Journal of Navigation. Nonetheless, their findings help guide agencies from NASA to the Federal Aviation Administration, and, as work and play extend toward 24-7, their arcane expertise is in increasing demand. Mark Rosekind, former director of Stanford‘s Center for Human Sleep Research, studied fatigue factors in accidents for the National Transportation Safety Board, then led the Fatigue Countermeasures Program at NASA’s Ames Research Center. His Silicon Valley consulting firm, Alertness Solutions, has several airlines and railways among its clients.

Rosekind, who directed an international task force on airline duty and rest scheduling, says fatigue is probably at fault in one-sixth to one-fifth of all workplace accidents — and bad schedules play a large part in them. In “high-performance” occupations, attention levels can deteriorate by 50 percent to 70 percent, he says, when work interferes with getting adequate high-quality sleep. Memory also deteriorates (though less drastically), and mood declines even more sharply. How does this apply in police work? “People say, who cares if a cop is smiling, but in law enforcement, communication skills are vital, and they can fall by 30 percent.”

Rosekind‘s research into circadian rhythms (our “body clock”) convinces him that there’s a big difference between a long day shift and the same shift at night. “Over 12 hours performance starts to plummet, as we head toward 12 we see degradation, but time of day matters. There‘s a biological low point from 3 to 5 a.m. that’s hard to change. If you‘re driving home at 6 a.m. the sun tells you to keep on going through the day.” Daytime sleep is not of the same quality as night sleep, scientists say, even if the social obstacles to getting the same quantity (families and other distractions) are overcome.

One researcher has melded some of the esoteric methods of alertness research, such as pupil response to changing light, with plain old interviewing in an assessment of police performance. Brian Vila, a University of Wyoming criminal-justice professor, just published Tired Cops, based on a long-term study of officers in four midsize cities around the U.S. After administering about 60,000 alertness tests, he found that at the start of shifts, 19 percent showed impairment equivalent to a 0.05 blood-alcohol content as measured on a Breathalyzer, and 6 percent as much as 0.08 (the drunken-driving standard in many states).

“Insufficient or interrupted sleep impairs everything from hand-eye coordination to decision making,” says Vila, “including cognitive and psychomotor skills involved in driving and shooting.” Impulsiveness increases as alertness declines, he says; officers “may jump to conclusions that aren’t warranted.” Moreover, he adds, “Tired cops get cranky — they‘re cranky people with guns.”

One of the four departments Vila studied was on 12-hour shifts, but, he says, the sample size of officers was too small to draw conclusions about how that affected objective measurements of fatigue. No research points to the perfect shift, Vila concludes. “If saving one or two commutes actually goes to increase sleep time, then it’s good, but a lot of chiefs are concerned that they‘ll use the time to get a second job.”

Though a study of British truck drivers found accident rates jumping after 10 hours, little research has directly addressed the differing impacts of eight- vs. 12-hour shifts. One study that did, evaluating nuclear-power plant operators around 1980, concluded that long shifts would raise the risk of an incident by 70 percent.

Neither Rosekind nor Vila believes that performance would decline on 10-hour shifts, and not much research clearly condemns a 3-12 day shift. Whether that could be combined with shorter night shifts has not been examined, says the PPL’s Baker. It‘s a logistically awkward melding, he adds, and as long as straight 3-12 remains a possibility, it’s not something the league has any interest in exploring.

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