By Matt Reed
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio state troopers - who face extra poundage for sitting long hours in patrol cars - are fighting back at a state rule that allows dismissal for those who consistently exceed weight limits.
No too-heavy Ohio troopers or sergeants have been fired in recent years, but at least 11 have received verbal or written reprimands since January for weighing too much, Department of Public Safety records show. One trooper was 48 pounds over his allowable weight, while another was 40 pounds beyond the maximum.
Union negotiators who began contract talks with the state last month want the rule done away with.
"It's basically being fired, with the stipulation that once you make weight, then you can come back," Ohio State Troopers Association President Larry Phillips said of his state's provision for dealing with consistently out-of-shape troopers. "They are just simply out the door. No health care, nothing."
Ohio's highway patrol is among just a handful of state patrols that allow punitive measures against troopers and sergeants who fail to meet weight requirements. Union contracts in Alaska and Massachusetts also allow for removing overweight troopers from duty, although that rarely happens, said National Troopers Coalition chairman Mike Eades.
The rate of police officers who are overweight or obese has grown along with the general American population in recent years, said Dr. Steve Farrell, who teaches police agencies how to implement fitness programs at the nationally respected Cooper Institute in Dallas.
Police officers and troopers may spend most of their workday sitting, either in patrol cars or at desks, but they must be prepared for sudden, extreme amounts of physical effort, such as running after a suspect, Farrell said.
Most law enforcement agencies that address the fitness issue have health and wellness programs that give officers time to physically train and allow incentives - such as extra pay or time off - for those who lose weight, Eades said.
A national task force made up of several law enforcement organizations has recommended that agencies include incentives in their programs, said Rick Weisman, director of labor services at the national Fraternal Order of Police.
"If you say to people, 'We're going to punish you,' you're not going to get people to volunteer to comply," said Weisman, a retired Columbus police sergeant. "It doesn't motivate them."
Only when agencies begin rewarding for progress can they see more officers and troopers engage in a healthier lifestyle, he said.
In Ohio, the troopers' contract does include extra monthly pay for those who meet standards. But the state should focus on offering further incentives, taking more of a corrective approach than a punitive one, he said.
"You've got all this money as far as hiring, training, time invested in these people, their experience," he said. What's more, he said, the state's budget deficit makes this an inopportune time to remove anyone because of their weight.
Most of Ohio's troopers meet the patrol's height-weight standards, Phillips said. But those who fail their monthly weigh-ins for 24 months straight can be removed from duty, with no pay or pension contributions or other benefits, he said.
Those who don't meet the standards can get a pass if they perform well on timed treadmill runs, bench press and other exercise tests given every two years, Phillips said.
State Highway Patrol Lt. Tony Bradshaw is one officer up against the limits. He weighs 215 lbs, which is fine for his 6-foot, 2-inch height. And because of his physical fitness level and his low body-fat percentage, he's allowed to weigh up to 224 lbs., said Bradshaw, who is the patrol's spokesman.
Because the patrol and the Troopers' Association are in the middle of contract negotiations, no other troopers who have faced the weight issue could be made available for comment, he said.
Six Ohio troopers were removed from duty in 2003, including one who was 71 pounds overweight. But no troopers or sergeants have been removed for being overweight in recent months because preliminary contract talks have been ongoing, Phillips said.
The patrol's height-weight standards, which also factor in someone's age and gender, were adopted in 1986, and the punitive measures were added during the 1990s, he said. A man who is 5 feet 11 inches tall, for example, is considered overweight if he weighs more than 179 pounds, according to the commonly used body mass index measurement.
The current contract expires June 30. The association will try, once again, to remove the provision from their next three-year agreement that allows for punishment for missing weight requirements, Phillips said.
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Ohio Department of Administrative Services spokesman Ron Sylvester wouldn't comment, because of the ongoing contract talks, on the state's reason for using punitive measures. But he said the state expects troopers to keep themselves in adequate physical shape.