Police Embrace 3-Day Workweeks as Cost Cutters
In police departments across Orange County and throughout Southern California, new three-day workweeks are being heralded as more valuable recruiting tools than cash.
Typically requiring beat cops to work three consecutive shifts of up to 12 hours each, the shifts have paid off in immediate boosts to officer morale, while cutting formidable overtime costs and sick leave, local officers and police administrators say.
In recent years, six local cities--Laguna Beach, La Palma, Los Alamitos, San Clemente, Seal Beach and Anaheim--have adopted the new work schedules.
In each of those cities, administrators say the potential for officer fatigue is a constant worry. Yet all say the change has been worth the gamble, especially in tough economic times. Administrators say the longer shifts actually have kept more officers on the streets during critical periods of the day, a boost in police presence that some financially strapped cities in better times usually solved by hiring more officers. In Laguna Beach, where the 47-officer force has been working three-day weeks and 12-hour shifts for nearly two years, officials say overtime has been cut by about 40%, and its 10% annual turnover rate has been cut to zero.
“Our officers love it,” Sgt. Danell Adams said.
Less than two months ago, Anaheim’s 340-officer department became the latest city force in California to adopt the plan and throughout the Southland, other municipal departments are watching the experiment.
“We’ve got our eye on it to see how it works,” said Don Blankenship, president of the Santa Ana Police Assn. And Anaheim Police Capt. Roger Baker said a “lot of agencies like Anaheim are looking at ways to maximize their resources, and I don’t think there is anything like a cookie-cutter approach to staffing.”
A recently-completed study of Anaheim’s experiment during its first month with the new workweek is reportedly showing a promising start, officials said.
Chief Joseph T. Molloy said Friday that overtime hours plummeted from 770 hours recorded during April, 1991 to 273 hours during the same time period this year. Arrest statistics, however, showed a slight drop from 1,631 last year to 1,467 this year. But Molloy said the decrease was most likely due to a marked increase in the number of calls for service. In April, 1991 Anaheim police responded to 16,770 compared to 20,367 during the same period this year.
“The calls for service show that we have enough people out on the streets to take care of business,” the chief said, adding that concerns about fatigue have so far not materialized. “These guys, and I’ve talked to a bunch of them, show that it doesn’t seem to be a problem.”
One concern identified in the study has involved difficulties in communications between shifts. Molloy said the internal study found that in some cases shift reports are not being filed for the workweek completed until some officers return from their long weekends.
“We’ve got to find a way to improve communication,” he said.
But for veteran Anaheim Officer Joe Karns, the plan seems to be working just fine.
“We can get more officers in problem areas” thick with drug dealing and gang activity, he said. “You can concentrate your patrols, and still handle your calls for service.”
On some of the busiest nights of the week, Karns patrols a section of Anaheim that includes the Disneyland area and the unforgiving neighborhoods south of the Magic Kingdom.
At first, Karns said, he thought 12 hours would “make for a real long shift. But out in the field, the time passes quickly. To me it was no more tiring than a nine-hour shift.”
But along with the popularity of the schedule comes some concern about how effective it is in the long run.
Because the department adopted the plan only a few months ago, “nobody’s really sure yet how it will work,” said Sgt. Jon Beteag, Anaheim Police Assn. president.
Anaheim and other participating departments in Orange County are just a few of at least two dozen departments that have converted to some form of the schedule in recent years, most of them in the Southland, said Michael Di Miceli of the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training in Sacramento.
Among those working on the switch are the Westminster Police Department and the Harbor Division of the Los Angeles Police Department. Trying to save money, Westminster street cops will begin three or four day weeks for a nine month trial period beginning in July, said Capt. Steve Martinez. The department hopes to save approximately $100,000 in overtime pay, said Chief James Cook.
“It looks good on paper, well have to see how it works,” Martinez said.
Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates has already approved the plan for the 110-officer Harbor Division, but implementation, which had been set for June, may be pushed back because of the recent riots, said Sgt. John Hanna.
Los Angeles police Sgt. George Gascon said the city has studied about a dozen police agencies which use various forms of the new scheduling system and have found few problems.
Faced with a need to reduce large blocks of officer compensatory time, Gascon said the department is looking to the schedule as a possible solution. Currently, he said, LAPD typically loses 20 to 50 officer-shifts each month because patrol officers are forced to take accumulated compensatory time off.
“That’s a major problem for us,” Gascon said. “We have very little cash to pay overtime.”
On the fatigue factor, the study found that it takes officers about four to six weeks to adjust to the new schedule. In the departments analyzed, Gascon also said there have been no discernible differences in officer-involved traffic accidents, the number use-of-force incidents and police complaints.
Despite the favorable evaluation, the sergeant said some administrators believe the scheduling plan to be a “radical idea.”
“I guess you could say there is a mixed reaction among administrators,” he said. “Fatigue is a cause for concern.”
And some Orange County police officials question whether having officers patrol the streets for longer hours each shift might not eventually lead to burn-out.
“If you work a guy 12 hours a day . . . are you going to overload him?” Santa Ana’s Blankenship asked. “Sometimes, eight hours is all you want of this. . . . Maybe 12 hours a day would be too stressful.”
Former Desert Hot Springs Chief Frank Robles, now a lieutenant with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, said the hours were wildly popular with his 27-officer force, but the risks proved to be too great.
The schedule promised the financially troubled city in Riverside County the luxury of greater police presence without the need to hire more officers.
It seemed an immediate boost for officer morale, and for the first six months it was. Then troubling symptoms began to appear.
First came the increased sick calls, and then Robles’ worst fears were confirmed: An internal study found that more than 50% of the force had taken second jobs.
“They had so much time off that quite a few were putting in eight to 10 hours a day of their off-time on second jobs,” Robles said. “They were getting so tired that they were calling in sick.”
“I knew in my heart that all it was going to take was one incident,” Robles said. “You gotta make sure that people are getting their rest. After a period of (six months) I started to see more of the fatigue factor.”
Later, the Riverside County Grand Jury issued stinging criticisms of the scheduling plan, citing the potential liability of working fatigued officers as “incalculable.”
That was four years ago. Since then, the Desert Hot Springs department, largely because of budget problems, has ceased to exist.
San Clemente Police Capt. Alicia Powers, whose department switched about two years ago, said she too is “concerned about fatigue, and over a long period it may be a factor. It’s not the ideal, but I think we need to keep an open mind.”
A decade ago, when the La Palma Police Department became the county’s first to use the 3/12 plan, there was some skepticism, Officer Jim Roche said.
“It was hard at first, and no one knew if it would last.”
But Roche, like many other police officers in the county, said the grind of longer workdays is tempered by their 90-plus-hour weekends. Most officers scoff at the idea that the plan eventually wears officers out.
“When you work, you work,” Roche said, “But I think the extra days off allows you to recoup.”
Unlike Desert Hot Springs, La Palma has not experienced the problem of officers taking second jobs.
“Many officers go to school or just have time off,” said Police Chief-designate Dave S. Barr.
Police officials who favor longer hours and a shorter workweek point out that the idea has been tried and tested for decades among some other high-stress professions, such as firefighters.
On the other side, promises of financial savings to cities have not always been realized, said Di Miceli of the state commission. Typically, he said, when cities have switched to a 3/12 plan, overtime pay and sick leave have dropped--but only for the first six months. Within six more months to a year, however, they revert to old levels.
Nevertheless, small departments like La Palma’s say the longer hours have helped them accomplish some goals.
San Clemente, for example, was having trouble retaining officers, said Lt. Bill Trudeau. But the three-day week has been so popular with officers that the department has been able to keep most of its officers since the switch.
“It’s expensive to train a police officer, and when you get a well-trained officer, he or she is an expensive commodity” that the department wants to keep, Trudeau said.
The Los Alamitos Police Department also looks to the shorter workweek to retain officers. Because officers in that city are the lowest paid in the county, “I guarantee you that some people would be looking to go elsewhere if not for the 3/12,” said Sgt. Jim Jessen.
And in La Palma, Chief-designate Barr said the 3/12 plan has succeeded in reducing sick time and overtime pay.
Meanwhile in Anaheim, Orange County’s second-largest police department, officials say it’s too early to call their plan a success, but claim the early signs are good.
“I think it’s a lot to ask a police officer to work 12 hours a day three days a week in a row,” Baker said. “But for right now, as a doctor would describe it, the patient is doing just fine.”
Anaheim police officials are taking steps to avoid some of the problems that led to Desert Hot Spring’s problems. Any officer looking for a second job must apply for a work permit, which is reviewed by police administrators.
“I’m telling you right now, we probably wouldn’t look kindly on an application that calls for one of our people working an additional 40-hour week,” Chief Molloy said.
Some other departments also set restrictions on outside jobs.
Mark Van Holt, for example, is a police officer with Los Alamitos for three days a week and a volunteer firefighter in the city other days. Between the two jobs, “I make it to every traffic accident in Los Alamitos,” he quipped. But, he said, the Police Department limits him to a a maximum of 10 hours of volunteer fire department work per week.
In La Palma, the three-day week gives Officer Wally Davis time to pursue his sideline: writing novels, cartooning and graphic art. On some weekends, Davis travels to quiet Bodie, Calif., in the Sierra Nevada mountains to do research for Western novels.
The days that he is on duty, Davis said, he has “virtually no life.”
“But on those days off you have four full days,” he said, smiling.
San Clemente Officer Jeff Carter spends some of his days off flying a small plane or working as an administrator at tiny Palomar Airport near Carlsbad. He and his wife frequently fly to Nevada.
“You wouldn’t believe it. I look out and its bumper-to-bumper traffic and I’m just cruising” above it, he said.
“I’m a lucky guy. . . . I basically have time to live another life.”
CAMPING OUT Anaheim policeman makes truck his home two nights a week he works. B7