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A Santa Monica motorcycle cops rides past the Public Safety Building on Thursday morning. As part of a six-month pilot program to increase the number of cops on the street, officers are working three, 12-hour shifts instead of the regularly four, 10-hour shifts. (photo by Brandon Wise)

PUBLIC SAFETY FACILITY — In an effort to put more cops on the street at a time when the majority of crimes occur, Santa Monica Police Chief Tim Jackman has instituted a six-month pilot program in which officers work three, 12-hour shifts instead of the traditional 10-hour sift, four days a week.

The switch, which applies to all officers on patrol, went into effect three weeks ago and is already paying dividends in the form of faster response times — around 10 to 25 percent faster — and a savings of $50,000 in overtime pay during the Fourth of July weekend, said Jackman, who admits he is still skeptical about the so-called 3/12 plan and looks forward to thoroughly evaluating it once it ends.

“Going into this I was clear that this had to make good business sense,” Jackman said Thursday. “If it was going to cost us money in this economy, I couldn’t do it. But it actually looks like it might save money and be incredibly more effective than we thought.”

With the old schedule, officers would be getting out of roll call and hitting the streets at about the same time their colleagues returned to the station, providing no real overlap in coverage. The new schedule allows for considerable overlap, with two shifts working side-by-side for several hours in the afternoons and evenings when more crimes tend to occur, said SMPD Sgt. Jay Trisler, spokesman for the department and president of the Police Officers Association, the union which represents the rank-and-file.

“We had a shortage in patrol and this was one of the ways of making sure that we can get enough people on the streets, and better utilize our resources to have better coverage in the community,” Trisler said.

The Los Angeles Police Department moved to the 3/12 schedule in 2001, which raised concerns amongst some City Council members, including former LAPD Chief Bernard Parks, and residents who wondered whether or not fatigue would become a factor because of the long hours, leading officers to make bad decisions in the field. There was also the negative public perception that officers were working less, the average resident unaware that officers on 3/12 have to work an extra, 10-hour shift during the month to reach the appropriate number of hours per pay period.

The Los Angeles Police Protective League (LAPPL), which represents officers, was in favor of the switch, saying that it significantly improved morale and helped retain officers considering transferring to another department. It also cut down on sick time, saving the city money.

“It has been a very successful program in multiple facets,” said Paul Weber, president of the LAPPL.

In addition to improving morale, allowing officers to spend more time with family, the scheduled help the LAPD comply with environmental requirements, cutting back on greenhouse gas emissions since officers were not having to drive from their homes to their stations as often as before.

Some officers were able to go back to school and earn degrees, which benefits the employer, Weber said.

As far as fatigue, Weber said during the traditional 8-hour shift he used to work as an officer he would often be forced to work 10 to 12 hours because “police work is not a straight 9 to 5 job.”

“As far as public perception and officers only working three days a week, I get that,” Weber said. “You can spin it that way. But what does it matter, three days to five days, as long as the guy is putting in the hours?”

A study by the city of Los Angeles in 2006 found that police were responding slower to emergency calls and overtime costs increased, and that other departments that have tried 3/12 found that their officers were less rested and effective, especially at the end of very long shifts.

Jackman said he was concerned about fatigue and hired an expert on the 3/12 to develop a training program for the SMPD. Jackman emphasized the research that went into creating the pilot program, saying he did not enter into the decision lightly. He credits patrol Officer Steve Bickler, a former 3/12 critic, with being the one who thoroughly researched the issue, preparing reports which Jackman presented to his command staff and City Manager Lamont Ewell before making the switch.

The idea for the change came from a handful of rank-and-file officers, Jackman said.

“So far it is exceeding my expectations,” Jackman said.

If analysis shows the switch to be a success once the six-month program is completed, Jackman said the department will make a permanent switch next summer.

Jackman said the change was purely about service and not about concerns with morale or overtime.

Ewell said he too was skeptical and concerned about fatigue and a possible increase in on-the-job injuries, but that has so far not proven to be a problem.

“I agreed to allow them to try the new schedule for a specific period of time and then they are to fully evaluate it to determine its value to the community,” said Ewell, who has family members in the LAPD who are happy with the 3/12 schedule. “They also developed metrics from which its successes or failures are to be measured. … The chief will ultimately review the data and provide his final recommendations for whether or not he supports the use of this schedule permanently.”

From the union’s perspective, Trisler said the switch is not solely about making members happy. It’s about what works for the community as a whole.

“Some of the officers commented that it does take some getting used to because it is a long day, but I think so far people are enjoying the new schedule,” Trisler said. “I can say that our response times will be down because we have more people out there.”