UB researcher investigating the 911 of 24/7 police work

Jan 27, 2020

University at Buffalo Professor John Violanti has become internationally known for his health and wellness research on the Buffalo Police Department. With a new federal grant of more than $800,000, the former New York State Trooper is now taking a deeper look at how well police officers adjust to shift work, overtime and secondary employment.

The new research, begun this month, will look at the physical and psychological challenges that come with long and abnormal work hours. What kind of challenges is the goal of the research.

Police work is a 24/7 occupation that often extends past the usual 9 a.m.-5 p.m. eight-hour work day and can be busiest overnight. However, Violanti said being up all night is "just not natural."

"I think it's important to understand, you know, it's not only the physiological factors that can cause problems, it's also the social factors," Violanti said. "One researcher called shift work a 'social jet lag.' In other words, people can't adjust socially as well, because of family obligations, because of other things which are normally done by us in the daytime. Officers can't do that if they work nights. They have to deal with this in a different way."

This social jet lag can affect how an officer interacts cognitively and emotionally with family, friends, other officers, offenders and crime victims.

"It can impair your decisionmaking skills, it can impair your ability to control your emotions," he said. "We see that things like that happen. There are more complaints about police officers who work nights and there are more complaints about police officers who (can't adapt)."

Violanti said 200 BPD officers will take part in the study over three years. To his knowledge, this will be the first longitudinal study of its kind, and the results will be applicable to other 24/7 occupations with atypical work schedules and sleep cycles.

University at Buffalo Research Professor of Epidemiology and Environmental Health John Violanti.
Credit University at Buffalo

"Not having any sleep at all really affects your memory, it affects your reaction time, it affects your attention," he said. "There was actually a study done on that and they found if you've had no sleep at all for 24 hours that it was equivalent to having 10 beers, and right down the line. If you had only two hours of sleep, it was equivalent to having eight beers, and so forth. These levels are above the intoxication levels, as prescribed by the Vehicle and Traffic Law."

Violanti said his previous research showed officers who work the night shift often get only 3-6 hours of sleep: they work all night, then may have to go to court in the morning or they may have family obligations.

"So when we look at officers and we look at things like melatonin, inflamatory markers, insulin and various other biological markers, we see that these are disregulated in people. What that's going to do, because of those things being out of sync with your body, it's going to open the body up for future disease," he said. "In adapted officers, we don't see that. We see an ordinary level of these things."

Violanti's previous research has been the basis of new health and wellness programs, at the Police Training Academy and BPD inservices, to better address trauma on the job. He estimates 15% of police officers have some level of PTSD.

"From my view, I think we woke people up," he said. "We know from our study that police officers die at an earlier age than the general population and we know they die of cardiovascular disease much more than people in the general population. So we give this information to them and I see changes coming. They got the message."

He hoped the results of this new research will be incorporated into training, as well. The grant of $834,177 to expand his studies came from the Department of Justice's National Institute of Justice.