Final Word: Mandatory Fitness Standards for In-Service Officers
A few years back, I authored a three-part series for The Police Marksman on physical fitness as an integral part of officer survival. The articles (co-authored with Jerry Konrad), focused on conditioning and wellness, and the legal ramifications of putting unfit, out-of-shape officers on the streets. Needless to say, the series prompted more than a few comments. While 90% of the feedback was positive on the overall issue of physical fitness as an important part of law enforcement, the remaining 10% dealt with the hiring standards for police candidates regarding minimum height requirements, obviously red herrings as far as the issue of physical fitness. Along those same lines, a weight loss contest conducted between several law enforcement agencies in my area recently caught my attention. Newspaper accounts played up the total weight lost by several teams of officers, made up of neighboring police departments and sheriff’s offices. The winning team’s weight loss totalled in the triple-digits. Interviews from the participants included all the standard comments one might expect from such a positive conclusion. They ranged from: “we (as police officers) have to be in shape to do our jobs,” to “image in this profession is important,” and “the demands of the job require that we be in shape.”
All of these are true statements, without a doubt. The rigors of the law enforcement profession require physical strength to perform the defensive and offensive tactics necessary to control violent offenders. And, when situations call for a rescue, officers must be physically able to save lives as well. Another area of importance is the presentation of a positive image while in uniform or plainclothes. This is vital for the individual officer, the agency and the law enforcement profession in general. It all adds up to command presence.
Interestingly, the last statement, which was uttered by a female participant in the weight loss contest provides insight into another area of concern. The officer noted that being in top physical condition is half of the “healthy body, healthy mind” axiom. Her comment brings up the question: Should law enforcement agencies mandate minimum physical fitness standards for their in-service officers, similar to those required for hiring?
I don’t know a single professional law enforcement agency that does not require a physical agility test of some kind as part of their hiring process. These tests can range from the usual running, push-up, sit-up, standing-broad-jump kind of evaluation, to the more job-specific type of test, such as the dummy drag, trigger-pull (hand strength), jumping a 3-4 foot high wall and climbing through a window test. Now, I’m sure everyone reading this would agree that physical examinations and fitness standards must be a part of the overall hiring process. But how about after you’ve been hired? Should in-service officers have to periodically undergo physical fitness evaluations? My admittedly unscientific analysis concludes that many agencies do have fitness standards, and lots of them do not. Some of the larger agencies even require annual physical examinations, complete with blood tests, and EKGs, in addition to annual physical fitness evaluations. Many even provide facilities for their officers to work out during off-duty hours.
Working out and staying in shape not only helps burn off the stress of the job but also keeps you younger and smarter. Some of the latest studies on wellness have come from Dr. Henry Lodge, MD from Columbia Medical School. His recent book, Younger Next Year, reveals some startling information about exercise and aging. According to Dr. Lodge, when people exercise, their muscles release specific chemicals that travel through their bloodstream telling their cells to grow.
Conversely, when people fail to exercise, their muscles let out a steady stream of chemicals that tell every cell not to grow, in fact, they tell the muscles to decay. According to Dr. Lodge, we replace about 1% of the cells in our bodies every day. Put another way, 1% of our bodies are brand new today and we’ll get another 1% tomorrow. Do the math. In theory, we’ll get a whole new body every three months. Now here’s the greatest part. You get to choose whether those new cells come in strong or weak. Exercise and they come in strong. Lie around and they get weak and decay. It’s simple biology. Law enforcement officers can’t afford to sit around and allow their bodies to weaken and decay. Indeed, lives (yours, your partner’s, the citizens who you’ve been charged with protecting) may depend upon how physically fit you are.
I think law enforcement agencies should mandate that all of their officers, from the police chief (or sheriff) down to the lowly street dog, maintain certain physical fitness standards. Examples of these include: having their weight proportional to their height, being able to run distances within certain time limits, being able to navigate fixed barriers (such as chain link fences or walls), and being able to lift themselves up through window openings, etc. While this list isn’t intended to be all inclusive, it does represent some specifics that the law enforcement profession may require. What happens when cops decide these matters aren’t important? Maybe the consequences of such conduct should be the same as failing to qualify with their duty weapon; probation with one chance to re-qualify within a specified time period, followed by removal from the field until they are able to pass the test. Too tough? I don’t think so. It’s all part of being proud of the profession.
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