Physical fitness double standards for male and female cops?

There is still no agreement on what it takes physically to be a cop — or what standards predict success


Comments on my articles “Why aren’t there more women in policing?” and “Fewer women in policing because fewer want the job” that lamented double standards for fitness and questioned women’s physical ability to do police work prompted this month’s discussion: 

•    What are the physical demands? 
•    How should they be tested for? 
•    Should there be different standards for women and men?

There’s plenty of variation, but here’s a general breakdown of the kinds of physical testing.

Traditional Fitness Tests
Some academies and agencies use a basic fitness test like the Alaska Department of Public Safety.   

Its pre-employment test requires:

1.)    At least 25 push-ups within one minute
2.)    At least 27 sit-ups within one minute
3.)    Run 1.5 miles within 15:12

Common variations add a vertical jump and a shorter aerobic run.  

Job-Related PAT
The Florida Capitol Police use a physical ability test (PAT) intended to simulate essential physical functions of an entry-level officer. It includes:

1.)    Exiting a vehicle/opening a trunk
2.)    Running 220 yards
3.)    Completing an obstacle course
4.)    Dragging a 150-pound dummy 
5.)    Obstacle course
6.)    Running 220 yards
7.)    Dry firing a weapon six times with each hand; and 
8.)    Placing items in a trunk/entering a vehicle

The entire test must be completed in just over six minutes. 

Hybrid Approach
The U.S. Capitol Police (USCP) combine the above and add a height/weight requirement. For employment, an individual must complete the following in 3:52 or less:

1.    Run through a 600-foot zigzag pattern
2.    Jog up three floors and then descend, four times
3.    Lift and drag a 165-pound mannequin 40 feet
4.    Retrieve an unloaded weapon from a stand and pull the trigger 15 times with each hand

However, the USCP advises applicants that individuals who are able to run 1.5 miles in 13:50 and complete at least 33 push-ups and 37 sit-ups (each within 1 minute) have a better chance of completing the PAT. 

The agency also has a Physical Readiness Test (PRT) with proscribed levels for flexibility, a bench press, a 1.5-mile run, an agility run, and body fat percentage. And there’s a height/weight requirement. The PRT qualification varies for gender and age. The height/weight requirement varies for gender and frame size.

Pros & Cons
I started this article definitely favoring the job-related PAT approach. That was because I’ve yet to find a cop who ever had to stop and do push-ups in the course of a job task. 

Then a corporal told me there’s empirical evidence that push-ups, sit-ups, running, etc., correlate to the fitness needed to meet the physical demands of police work. That still left me asking, “Why settle for a correlation? Why not test for what the job physically requires?” 

Seems there are also problems with the nominally job-related PATs. They’ve never been validated using a standard “criterion-based validation,” which analyzes whether a test predicts on-the-job performance. 

Even the “content-based validation,” which focuses on whether test tasks parallel actual job duties, is questionable because there’s no consensus on what physical tests should be used. The fact some police agencies don’t use any physical tests adds to the question whether physical tests of any type are predictive of officer performance (page 8).

Some agencies and academies that use the traditional fitness testing have different standards for men and women, and for different age groups. Examples are in Ohio and Illinois. The military also has different fitness standards based on age and gender. As I understand the argument in support of this — given the different physiology of men and women — a woman who can do, for example, 35 push-ups is as fit as a man who can do 40.

Double Standards?
My beef with the traditional fitness double standards is they provide fodder for arguing women can’t do the job unless standards are lowered, and they fuel resentment. Why should women suffer the hostility that double standards incite in those looking for reasons to conclude women shouldn’t be cops when the standards are meaningless predictors of effectiveness on the job? 

This reasoning favors the PATs, but since they haven’t been shown to be predictors of on-the-job performance either, perhaps the best approach would be a hybrid one. First, give a physical readiness test for academy training. Check out the LAPD’s 4-month pre-academy fitness routine, accompanied by a fitness log, that candidates are expected to bring to the department interview and again to the first day of the academy.  

Then, for pre-employment, administer a job-task readiness test. This could be based on any number of police job task analyses — such as California’s Entry Level Patrol Officer Job Analysis or the same thing from Michigan

It might benefit academies to use such job task analyses as the basis of their scenario-based training and testing. At a minimum, use a PAT for pre-employment, like that of the Florida Capitol Police, that simulates entry level job functions.

Another Double Standard
For those expressing concern about entry fitness standards for women, what about maintaining fitness? Where’s the concern about what kind of backup or solo subject control an overweight, wheezing, out-of-shape officer can provide? To those who question a petite female officer’s ability to wrestle a “250-lb. drunk thug,” I daresay that would eliminate a lot of men — including 280-lb., out-of-shape ones. 

No matter how big and strong you are, there’s always going to be a bigger, stronger bad guy. That’s why officers are trained to use their intelligence, verbal judo, defensive tactics, OC spray, ASP baton, TASER, and firearm.

Any martial arts expert I’ve talked to or researched says mental ability is always more important than physical size or strength. To quote just one

For winning a fight, assuming we are empty handed, the most important attribute is mental ability... during our experiences we witnessed, many times a smaller person less skilled beat the bigger, faster and many times better skilled opponent, just because he wanted it more, wouldn’t give up and so on.

Most of the time officers aren’t empty-handed, which increases their mental advantage exponentially. This citizen happily bets her tax dollars on a smart, well-trained, healthy, assertive and persistent officer of any size or gender over a 250-lb. drunken thug.

Bring It On
Jump in, dear readers. Keep teaching and questioning me. Voice your thoughts and opinions in the comments area below. I hope to become wiser for them.

About the author

As a state and federal prosecutor for over 10 years, Val’s trial work has been seen nationally on ABC'S PRIMETIME LIVE, Discovery Channel's Justice Files, in USA Today, The National Enquirer and REDBOOK.

Described by Calibre Press as "the indisputable master of entertrainment," Val is now an international law enforcement trainer and writer who appears in person and on TV, radio, video productions, webcasts, newspapers, books and magazines. She has been a regular contributor to a number of law enforcement publications and has been featured in the Calibre Press Online Street Survival Newsletter, Police Chief magazine, The Law Enforcement Trainer magazine, and The Royal Canadian Mounted Police Gazette.

When she's not working, Val can be found flying her airplane with her retriever, a shotgun, a fly rod, and high aspirations. Visit Val at www.valvanbrocklin.com and contact her at info@valvanbrocklin.com.

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