In 2008 a recording of an alarming, botched emergency call surfaced in Memphis, Tenn. A resident there dialed 911 saying someone was trying to break into her home. The dispatcher's response? Snores.
"Our lives were in danger," the woman, who did not give her full name because she worked with law enforcement, told WMC-TV Memphis' Action News 5. "Our lives were at stake, and our lifeline was severed."
Startling though that tape may have been, falling asleep on the job may not be uncommon among law enforcement, according to new research. And nearly a third of police officers may suffer from excessive sleepiness, the study suggests, which has serious implications for broader job performance and safety.
In the study, published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers from Brigham and Women's Hospital screened nearly 5,000 police officers from the U.S. and Canada, in either online or on-site screening. Some 40 percent of those officers tested positive for at least one sleep disorder -- the majority of which had gone previously undiagnosed.
Obstructive sleep apnea, which causes the throat to collapse during sleep and results in frequent breathing pauses, was the most common disorder -- affecting more than 30 percent of the officers. In addition, more than 6 percent of the participants were found to have moderate to severe insomnia, while more than 5 percent had shift work disorder. (The Cleveland Clinic defines the latter as an issue that affects individuals whose hours "go against" their natural Circadian rhythms, leading to insomnia and excessive sleepiness.)
"The notion that sleep deprivation and sleep disorders have consequences for physical health is something that has only been recognized in the past 10, 12, maybe 15 years," said Dr. Charles Czeisler, director of the division of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School and one of the study's authors.
"Prior to that, we thought 'maybe if we don't get enough sleep, we'll have difficulty paying attention the next day,'" he continued. "We weren't thinking in terms of the serious, possible hazards."
And those potential hazards are numerous, as the new study lays out.
Approximately half of the police officers reported having fallen asleep at the wheel at least once, while a quarter said they fall asleep while driving once or twice a month. (The study's authors cite data from 2009 to 2010 that indicates more than a third of in-the-line-of-duty deaths came from car crashes.) Officers who screened positive for a sleep disorder were more likely to have made serious administrative errors, committed safety violations or reported instances of uncontrolled anger toward suspects or citizens, the study suggests. Those officers also had higher rates of depression; those with sleep apnea had greater risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Bryan Vila, a professor of criminal justice and criminology at Washington State University, Spokane, hailed the new study as "very important" -- saying it represents the first major effort to quantify the risk of sleep disorders in police officers at a national level. A longtime researcher in the area, he said sleep is only now beginning to get the attention it warrants from police organizations and police officers. He warned the issue isn't getting the right coverage from the media, which he said tends to focus on overtime pay and not the health implications of frequent long hours.
"The hard thing about this is although we know what to do about [sleep] in the transportation industry and manufacturing, policing is a very different job," Vila said. "There's such a broad range in cognitive and physical challenges during the course of a shift, and what works in one city doesn't necessarily work in another one."
Other experts say that awareness of sleep issues, as well as efforts to curb them, are still limited.
Maria Haberfeld, chair of John Jay College's department of law and police science, said that the large number of police departments in the U.S. makes generalization difficult, but acknowledged that most do not consider such sleep issues. The unpredictability of police work makes any major scheduling changes aimed at improving sleep particularly difficult, she said.
But the authors of the new study did identify one promising avenue in sleep disorder prevention: keeping officers in shape.
Massachusetts State Police had significantly lower risk for obstructive sleep apnea than municipal or nationwide police officers, they found, which may stem from a physical fitness program implemented at that department many years ago. (Obesity is a major risk factor for the disorder.)
Czeisler said that the next step is not only to continue screening for sleep problems, but to develop programs that help curb them.
"The disorders that we identified are eminently treatable," he said. "That's the good news."