Is Police Brutality Coming From a Bad Night’s Sleep?

Mason Mohon | @mohonofficial

Whether you back the blue or think all cops smell like bacon, you probably agree that there is a time for violence and a time for non-violence. Across the developed world, there is a problem with police brutality. Officers are able to get away with horrendous crimes with termination, and sometimes rarely even that. The issue of police brutality transcends the borders of any one nation, and one of the causes may be a lack of sleep.

First, though, we need to look at what the police are doing.

Worldwide Police Brutality

Police brutality has been a pervasive issue for a long time now. Dating back to and even before the 1963 march on Washington, police officers have been caught using excessive force on lawbreakers, even as a response to minor infractions and peaceful protests. We saw it as a problem then, and it is still seen as a problem now. In the U.S. specifically, there is a sizeable issue with police shootings.


Clearly, the United States has a problem with police killings. But the problem of police brutality itself is not unique to the United States. In the UK, police brutality still plagues urban areas. The Guardian reports:

The Metropolitan police’s use of force has risen sharply in the last year, with black people far more likely to be subjected to such tactics than anyone else.

The UK’s largest police force deployed methods ranging from handcuffing to use of stun guns, CS spray, batons and guns 41,329 times in April to August of this year – 270 times a day on average – according to Guardian analysis of official figures. That compares with 23,118 in the corresponding period last year – a 79% rise – and 62,153 in the whole of 2017-18.

Even absent the pervasive plague of death by cop, the UK police are using force on those they deem deserving. And similarly to the United States, they are using force on black people to a disproportionate rate.

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The problem is undeniable. And like all problems, there is a cause and a solution. But at the same time, in any system of humans, the causes and solutions are going to be very complex.

Sleep Deprivation and Policing

There are many potential causes of police violence. There is over-militarization, white privilege, and lack of accountability to name a few. The extent of the role that these factors take is debated. Some believe that certain issues like white privilege don’t exist, or that the militarization of the police is justified. One issue that is rarely considered when it comes to policing is sleep.

One study looks at the sleep quality of urban police officers in the United States. It measures their sleep quality using the PSQI, a reliable test used to measure sleep quality over the last month through self-reporting. The study weighs 7 factors on a scale from 1 to 3, including sleep duration, quality, efficiency, and use of sleep meds. These seven allow for a maximum score of 21. A higher score reflects lower sleep quality. A score above 5 indicates poor sleep quality.

The study indicates that 54% of officers have poor sleep quality. 69% of officers that work a night shift have poor sleep quality. Over half of police officers are not getting the sleep they need.

This phenomenon is once again not unique to the United States. In the UK, 69% of officers get less than 7 hours of sleep prior to a workday. In addition, 87% of officers are not meeting their sleep need over the course of shift rotation.

So clearly, police across the developed world are not getting the recommended 8-9 hours of nightly sleep that a human should be getting, but does this really even matter? What’s the big deal about lack of sleep?

Impacts of Lack of Sleep

Getting the recommended amount of sleep has numerous benefits. It protects you from injuries in sports, boosts your memory, keeps you skinnier, and helps your mood. But many of these issues are personal and have no clear effect on violent or forceful tendencies for anyone, especially police officers.

The problem comes in when we look at the issues that a lack of sleep has when it comes to gauging someone’s mood based on their facial expression. Matthew Walker’s book Why We Sleep dives into a study that researches exactly this. The study determined that when people are deprived of REM sleep, which occurs in the last 2 hours of an 8-hour sleep, they are much much worse at distinguishing between emotions.

This results in the brain defaulting to fear. Those studied began to looking at gentle or kind faces as threatening. This makes the whole world seem threatening. A lack of sleep makes one paranoid. This adds some weight to the often heard the excuse from officers that they feared for their lives when they killed or hurt someone. It is a common excuse made both by the police themselves and apologists. An easy fix for this would be sleeping properly. A full 8 hours allows for level headed and accurate judgment, rather than fear-based assault and murder.

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