For some police, a new schedule means fewer, but longer, days 200 local officers are only in state to try normal 12-hour shifts

March 22, 1998|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Sipping 2-hour-old coffee, Howard County police Officer Louis Palazzolo steered his cruiser into a North Laurel strip mall about 4 a.m. Friday, pulled himself out and began checking shop doors.

Palazzolo, a private first class, was one of about 200 Howard County patrol officers, sergeants and lieutenants who this month became the only local officers in Maryland working normal 12-hour shifts, sometimes three days in a row.

This was Palazzolo's third day. He had two hours to go.

"Of course, I'm tired and grouchy," said the 19-year veteran. "This can be a grueling schedule."

Howard County police officials adopted the new schedule, which started March 11, to make the department more efficient and to help finance a better retirement package -- a decision backed by county officers 3 to 1. Patrol officers had worked 9 1/2 -hour days.

Many departments across the country have tried the longer, 12-hour day, a schedule that has met with mixed results.

Some departments boast savings from increased efficiency, reduced overtime and a boost in officer morale. But other de- partments halted similar schedules after experiencing high rates officer fatigue and managerial problems, which included unanticipated costs, experts say.

"It really depends on the department," said Michael Buerger, a professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University's College Criminal Justice. "It's not a bad idea, really. But the 12-hour shift is a long one."

According to police in Howard and other jurisdictions that have tried this, most officers love the shift change for the extra days off -- 37 more a year in Howard.

"I really enjoy it," said Howard County Officer Robin Goodson after finishing his first week of the new schedule. "I get more time at home."

In Howard County, daytime patrol officers will start their shifts at 6: 30 a.m. or 8: 30 a.m. on a staggered schedule that alternates working two days and taking two off with working three days and taking three off.

Officers on night patrol shifts -- that start at either 6: 30 p.m. or 8: 30 p.m. -- will work three nights on and three nights off.

Night patrol worries

It was officers on night patrol who had the most reservations.

They said they were worried about being exhausted when a 12-hour shift was followed by hours in court during the day. Alternating every two weeks between 6: 30 p.m. and 8: 30 p.m. starting times might strain family life.

"That switch can be real tough," said Officer Roch DeFrances. "The 12 hours itself isn't a big deal. I can handle that."

Experts agreed that a 12-hour night shift combined with court appearances and family duties could prove troublesome.

"It really depends on what they're doing on their off time," said Dr. David Dinges, an expert on the relationship between sleep and performance at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School. "There are so many things that go into this. It's not just the length of the shift, but their sleep time."

Dozens of officers said they worried about handling a difficult call during the later hours of their shift -- something they might try to avoid.

Experts say that's the inherent problem with the shift change.

"By their 10th, 11th, 12th hour, officers' functions aren't what they should be," said Mort Feldman, executive vice president of the National Association of Chiefs of Police. "Twelve hours is pushing that edge where production begins to really dwindle."

Feldman, who has followed the 12-hour shift at departments nationwide, said several have dropped the program, even as others are embracing it.

Unexpected costs

In March 1991, the Greenbelt Police Department dropped its 12-hour shift after beginning it in 1988. Officials said the schedule resulted in unexpected costs, which included runaway overtime for officers' court appearances.

Los Angeles police ended 12-hour shifts in November. The 9,500-member department had been experimenting with 12-hour days for 1,200 officers since January 1995, but Police Chief Bernard C. Parks eliminated the schedule over the objections of police and union officials who defended it.

Parks said the 12-hour day hurt community policing efforts because officers weren't working enough days and the schedule wasn't flexible enough to handle specific problems plaguing certain areas.

"While morale [of officers] will continue to be one of the factors considered when such decisions are made, it must be balanced against our obligation to provide the best possible service to the people of Los Angeles," Parks wrote in a letter to the Los Angeles Times.

But some experts and police officers said the 12-hour shift actually helped community policing by introducing officers to different people encountered at different times. It also gives officers more time to follow through on a problem.

"They might get to know their whole community and meet new people," said Buerger, the criminologist.

Some who followed the LAPD experience said the department might have been too big to handle the managerial changes that came with 12-hour shifts.

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