The Record The hot new thing in police schedules is the 12-hour shift. Police love it because working three 12-hour days a week instead of five eight-hour shifts gives them more days off. And some North Jersey towns that have adopted the schedule, such as Ramsey and Lodi, say it improves police morale and cuts overtime costs. But communities considering this change should use caution. As Staff Writer Deena Yellin reported on Dec. 18, at least three police departments around the nation - in Jackson, Miss., Detroit and Juneau, Alaska - tried 12-hour shifts and abandoned them. That should send a warning that having officers work just three days a week isn't good for every community. One concern is officer fatigue. Unlike firefighters or certain health care workers with long shifts, police carry guns. Some drive alone on patrol for hours, and they may engage in high-speed car chases. At the end of a 12-hour shift, officers' reactions might be slowed, their capacity to make split-second judgments compromised. That could endanger their safety and the public's. Another worry is that with so many days off, police can become less connected to their jobs. This is especially likely if the greater number of days off serves as an incentive to take second, part-time jobs. Emerson, which recently approved the change to 12-hour shifts, requires at least eight hours between the time an officer leaves an outside job, such as performing road detail for a utility company, and reports for police work. But an eight-hour break is not enough before a round of two or three 12-hour police shifts. Still another concern is inflexible department scheduling. With 12-hour shifts, more officers are on duty at any given time. The advantage is if one officer calls in sick, there should still be enough working without calling someone in on overtime. But the downside is that a department might have more officers than it needs during quiet times, and no flexibility to bolster staffing during busy shifts, such as on the day of a town parade. Inflexible scheduling is one reason Juneau did away with 12-hour shifts. Another problem in Juneau was that frequent days off caused delays in officers finishing investigations and completing reports. Towns interested in trying the new schedule can take steps to ward off problems. For one thing, they should require that officers get permission before accepting second jobs, a rule Ramsey has for all municipal workers. All communities also should have a minimum 12-hour break from outside work before police duty. And to keep police connected to their work, communities should avoid giving officers four straight days off. Allowing no more than three days off at a time is better. It's understandable why police departments want 12-hour shifts, and why towns eager to cut overtime costs are willing to go along. But the paramount concern must be safety - for the public and for the officers themselves.