D.C. Police Officer Charles Nern, 36, chose the midnight shift (10:30 p.m. to 7 a.m.) "on purpose," though it's tough on his family life.

"I liked the people, the dedication of the midnight-shift people. I went to the midnight section because they were aggressive, hard-working officers, and I would like to think that I fall into that category."

A few months after he transferred to the 4th District, Nern moved to the midnight shift, realizing that it would mean a major change in the way he and his wife and their son, 11, and daughter, 9, would live. "My wife wasn't very enthusiastic. She took a wait-and-see attitude."

Susan Nern, 33, who works 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday for a group of Oxon Hill doctors, says her husband doesn't really work "shift work. He works all nights. I'd rather he worked a regular shift, at least 4 to midnight, because when he goes to court, it upsets the whole family when he has to be asleep."

Often, after making an arrest the night before, Nern--a 13-year-veteran--goes off duty and straight to court. "Roughly half" his appearances last year kept him in court past noon. "I spent 9 days in a murder trial where I was in court until between 4:30 and 6 p.m. I went home, showered, shaved, took a little nap and went back to work.

"I make a lot of arrests, and I just happen to know how many off-duty court appearances I had last year. It was 156. That's probably how much time 25 percent of the midnight-section officers spend in court."

Many days the Nerns don't see each other at all.

"Usually I see him on the way to work when he's coming home," says Susan Nern. "When I get to work I'll call and talk to him before he gets to bed. We do most of our communicating over the telephone. We talk about who's going to do this, who's going to do that, what your schedule is, if there's court or no court."

Nern's schedule, so far as the children are concerned, "is a problem," he says. "My wife and I discuss it often, that I don't spend enough time with the kids. There are problems because of that.

"On the other hand, we do pretty much together. We try to get to museums on Sundays as much as we can. The kids enjoy it and we do, too. And we take the usual Kings Dominion trip and we always have a family vacation, something we all enjoy, like the beach."

Susan Nern: "Theoretically, it's not bad. Objectively, in everyday living, it's different. Tempers flare more often, things like that. You have to make it a point to take some time out for yourselves, to say, 'This weekend we're going to go here, there or the other thing' . . . go out to dinner and relax. Otherwise you get so caught up in your schedules that you lose sight of each other as people."

Nern says he'd like to find work on a different shift, in a different part of the department. "I want to do that for the family. But I feel that as a police officer I should be out there preventing crimes, locking up the people who commit crimes.

"I really do have guilt feelings about wanting to get off the street, but I put the department ahead of my family for many years. I can see where it's hurt the family and I can see it's time for a change."