Fighting crime 12 hours a day Howard County: New shifts may save money, but officials must guard against fatigue.

March 19, 1998

HAVING POLICE officers work 12-hour shifts may be a good idea, but the new arrangement must be closely monitored and changed if it creates new headaches. The schedule change was suggested as a way to save money by reducing the number of officers needed to fill all shifts.

The police union initially said it would accept longer shifts only if Howard officers could retire with full benefits after 20 years. In the end, the union agreed that officers who retire after 20 years can receive only 39 percent of their final salaries. If they work past 25 years, they can get 57 percent, and after 30 years up to 65 percent.

The union concession was critical. Howard's lower crime rate and prosperity make it one of the more desirable places to be a law enforcement officer. Still, it's hard to keep officers who can retire with full pensions after only 20 years. Many in the prime of their lives would retire and find employment nearby.

With implementation of the new retirement rules, the 12-hour shifts began last week. Daytime patrol officers either work two days, then take off two days, or they work three days, then take three off. Officers on night shift work three days and are off three. Under the old nine-hour shifts, Howard County officers worked four days, then took three off.

Generally good remarks have been made about 12-hour shifts in other jurisdictions. They were apparently popular with officers in Los Angeles, who liked having more consecutive days off to handle personal business. However, that city's new police chief eliminated the long shifts several months ago and some criticism of them has cropped up elsewhere.

The complaints include poor relationships between police supervisors and officers who see less of each other on a weekly basis. There is also a question of whether the longer shifts actually produce savings because expensive overtime sometimes must be paid to fill gaps when many officers are off on the same day.

Howard officials will have to monitor the new schedules closely to determine whether they improve efficiency. Even with three days off, a person can become groggy pulling a 12-hour shift. It's important to have officers on the street who are mentally alert. If that becomes a problem with the new work schedules, the longer shifts must be reconsidered.

Pub Date: 3/19/98

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