I penned this article a few years ago. I had just endured an injury while engaged in a 1.5 mile run for the physical agility test portion of the hiring process for the Madison (WI) Police Department. It was the last one of approximately six such tests in which I participated that year. See my follow-up comments in the EPILOGUE at the conclusion of the original article.
Physical fitness in law enforcement: whenever the topic comes up, everyone talks a good game. In reality, the fitness “train” was derailed years ago. It’s like the pink elephant in the living room: everyone knows there’s a huge problem, but no one wants to acknowledge it.
WHAT IS BROKEN?
First: In recent years, there has been a growing trend in the selection process and in training academies. Fitness gurus (pronounced: zealots) have grabbed control of the fitness programs. In the name of improvement, they have driven the programs far away from simulating anything that is actually required to do the job of being a cop.
No one has the courage to challenge these zealots, because to do so would sound “soft.” So, we’ve now got a system of selection and training which has requirements that many (or most) cops on the job cannot meet.
Second: For a variety of reasons, once a cop graduates from the academy he tends to “fall off the radar,” from a fitness perspective. It is not difficult to find a cop that’s been on the job for five years, or more, who laments the need to lose weight and ‘get back in shape.’
Third: Running has become institutionalized as the sole test to determine a candidate’s overall fitness. This too, has been a compromise – a means to an end. Rather than measuring actual elements of fitness required for the job, running has taken its place because it’s easily measured, requires no specialized equipment, and is a favorite of the fitness zealots who have seized control.
Unfortunately, not everyone was built to be a runner, even though their real fitness may be excellent.
As an instructor in multiple police academies, I am witness to the methods used to test and improve the physical fitness of the candidates. Make no mistake about it: I am a strong believer in fitness. I workout daily. I am a competitive bodybuilder. I maintain a vigorous physical constitution for myself.
Candidates in the academy do not all fit the stereotype of a young man in his twenties, who was recently discharged from the military with a rock-hard physique that ripples with muscularity. There are women. There are people in their middle years. There are people of varying backgrounds and physical capabilities.
It is believed that all of these candidates will make good police officers by virtue of their having passed the various tests required for entrance.
Looking back in time, one need not go very far to see when physical tests related to tasks that officers actually do on the job: push a car, drag a 150 lb. dummy, change a tire, run a short distance, jump over a fence, etc.
However, the fitness zealots have seized control. That is unfortunate because not everyone is a zealot when it comes to fitness. They have scrapped the more traditional tests and skills for more sophisticated versions. We must now turn ourselves into quasi-professional runners. Even those of us who are not built like a runner (some are built more like a refrigerator) must run mile after mile at timed speeds.
To what end? Do cops on the street run miles and miles in the pursuit of anything? The answer: NO. Absolutely not.
TIME TO SHAKE THINGS UP
The establishment is afraid to challenge these fitness gurus. It would be similar to using a racial slur. It’s something that one just doesn’t do. Police management and leadership will privately acknowledge that the physical aspect of the selection and training process is out of control. But, they won’t admit it in public. That would be heresy.
Law enforcement selection and training standards have a moral – if not a legal – obligation to return fitness trianing to what the job actually requires. Many of those skills are being ignored today, in deference to the running gods. It’s senseless and it’s unsafe.
Why does it persist? Because everyone says we need to improve the fitness level of our cops. But, no one is willing to risk seriously challenge a system that has become institutionalized, yet fails miserably at achieving the stated objectives.
BROKEN FITNESS MODEL POINT TWO
Once a recruit graduates from the academy, all too often, fitness gets lip service but no real attention. I have an experience with a close friend who has been on the job about four years.
During the academy, he worked very hard to achieve great physical condition. The class ran six miles at least once each week, sometimes more. Why did they run six miles? Because the guy in charge of the academy is a competitive runner and he thinks it’s a good idea. Endurance running has absolutely nothing to do with police work and he will admit as much.
Now, four years later, my close friend is 45 pounds overweight. He hasn’t paid attention to his diet nor his exercise regimen. The results are hanging over his duty belt.
Why isn’t something done? Like what? In many cases, unions protect their members from being forced to meet physical fitness standards once they are on the job. One could logically argue that an officer must qualify periodically with his firearm, why not make a similar requirement for fitness? After all, fitness can make the difference between catching a bad guy or not; or between life and death for the officer.
Making a change in this area is incredibly difficult. Just recently the chief of a small department lost his job as the direct result of circulating a memo among the troops insisting that they lose their excess body-fat. He did it professionally. He was within legal and ethical guidelines. He simply pointed out that far too many of the officers in his agency lacked the physical fitness needed to be fully effective. He wanted improvement. And, for that, he was sacked.
We can see that most fire departments have some kind of fitness facility built into the fire house. Indeed, many police buildings have them, as well. However, that’s where the similarity ends.
Fire fighters, by design, have idle time at the station that they can devote to exercise.
Cops, on the other hand, are chided for spending too much time at the station, taking too long to get on the street at the beginning of their shift, and for returning too early at the end of the day. I have worked many a shift where the backlog of calls prevented us from even taking time for lunch. We were forced to get bad food that was handed to us through a drive-up window while on the way to the next call.
Is there time to work out while on duty? Forget it. Fitness may be just as important to a cop as it is a fire fighter, but don’t expect to get duty time to train. It just won’t happen in most places.
So there you have it: a recipe for out-of-shape cops. No time for a meal break, no time for a workout, short sleep hours because being in court is a must and must be sandwiched in somewhere. And, most of all: no one (at a management level) gives it anything but obligatory lip service.
BROKEN FITNESS MODEL POINT THREE
Running has become the one, the only, barometer of physical fitness FOR police applicants and recruits. In reality, running is only a barometer of other, more fundamental, measures of true fitness.
As said earlier, cops of days gone by were tested for the things that cops really do on the street: change a flat tire, push a car, drag a person from a building, short foot pursuits, etc. But in today’s world, those tests have been scrapped. Worse, they are not even taught to current recruits even those these are the very tasks they will face on the street.
Not every person is capable of being a distance runner. There are a variety of reasons.
I happen to be one of those persons. I was born with a deformity of my right knee that affected my pelvis and lower spine. I have worked through physical therapy, countless medical treatments, re-learned to walk, and spent most of a year with professional running coaches learning how to run.
I have met with much success, though I still cannot be called an accomplished runner.
I have recently participated in physical agility tests for two agencies, one in Ohio and one in Wisconsin. The most recent was yesterday.
WAKE UP AND SMELL THE COFFEE
Here is why I believe that the use of running as a deal-killer in physical agility testing has produced a model that is broken and (under A.D.A.) most likely, illegal. My condition at the time of yesterday’s test:
Male, 6’01”, 190 lbs., 6% body-fat, 30” waist, 48” chest, 20” arms, mid-life, vision corrected to 20/20, all other vital signs strong. I am a competitive bodybuilder, having now competed in six contests.
Due to the disability in my knee, the first time I had ever run was just a few months ago. Recognizing that I would need to pass running tests, I hired a professional running coach. I got medical review and advice. On my first day with the running coach, he asked me to run as far as I could so he would know my capabilities: 200 feet. That’s it.
Now, some three months later, I am running an average of three miles a day. It’s not fast, mind you, but I am running.
As I prepared for the Wisconsin test, I began working on improving my speed, because the test is timed. With that speed increase came a bout with tendonitis, which would ultimately cost me success in the overall test.
I am in better shape than most cops on the street. I have counseled numerous officers in recent years on fitness and diet. I am regularly recognized and acknowledged as being in fantastic shape. I was at my peak physical condition for the Wisconsin test, yet tendonitis stopped me mid-way through the run.
I find it a bitter pill: I am being asked to pass a test to be hired for a job when many of those who already hold the job cannot pass the very same test. I am acknowledged to be in the best shape/condition possible, yet I have difficulty with a test that is both contrived and irrelevant to the job.
When I’ve challenged the use of running as a key component of fitness measurement, police management will privately agree. Yet they say that it has become institutionalized.
It is endorsed by the IACP and by various other bodies of authority, thus making it the defacto standard. Most chiefs would scrap it in a heartbeat, but lack the wherewithal to effectively replace running with tests that measure fundamental fitness components instead.
And in today’s industry news, it was revealed that departments across the country (e.g. Los Angeles Police Department) are placing limitations on foot pursuits. So: not only don’t cops run on the job, now their agencies are telling them not to run. Yet, running continues to be used as the “real” measure of fitness for those who would join their ranks.
The law enforcement fitness model is broken. Pure and simple.
Standards used for entrance testing and recruit training are no longer rooted in the job, but rather in sophisticated and unrelated fitness objectives of zealots who have seized control.
Officers get on the job and not only fall off the fitness radar, but are ultimately pushed into a physical abyss by the job and its demands.
Finally, running has become institutionalized and embraced as the real “absolute test” of fitness which ignores and replaces measures that are not only more accurate, but also better measure fitness and fitness capacity at a more fundamental level.
It is time to return fitness standards and tests to ones that match what the job actually requires.
The current system doesn’t make sense, denies qualified applicants, tacitly encourages poor health with officers on the job, and is probably illegal under Americans with Disabilities Act.
The time for change is long overdue.
Since this was written, I have moved to Florida and taken P.A.T. with a few departments in this state. I am happy to report that two of those agencies have radically updated their fitness testing and training.
Yes, there was some short runs – better termed sprints, followed by a belly crawl, dummy drag and other tasks which replicate what is required of officers on the job. Many departments here have periodic fitness testing (annual and/or semi-annual).
Finally, there is now case law on the matter. The Courts have ordered that the P.A.T. used for selection must be tailored to match the activities of patrol officers in the sponsoring agency. No longer may the same test be used by groups of agencies for the sake of convenience.
Additionally, in order to support the inclusion of any one test component, in-service officers from the sponsoring agency must be periodically checked to ensure they can meet the demands of said test. Without such evidence, the specific test in question may not be used in selection or training.
Compliance with the referenced case law is being done by a very small segment of the nation’s agencies. It brings a whole new complexity for academies that train officers for multiple agencies as the physical component must be tailored for each agency, individually.
The fat lady hasn’t sung on this one, yet. It will be interesting to see how it all works out.
Remember, it all comes down to saving just ONE life.
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