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Are "readiness" tests a better cure than "fitness" tests for LEOs’ poor conditioning?

By Chuck Remsberg
Senior PoliceOne.com Contributor
Sponsored by Blauer

Talking about plain old physical “fitness” in a law enforcement context is talking about the wrong thing, in the opinion of Jay Smith, himself a fitness consultant. The term “simply has too much emotional baggage.”

The proper concept for cops should be physical “readiness,” he insists: Is any given officer in good enough condition to perform all the demands of the job, the exceptional challenges as well as the routine chores?

That’s the question that needs to drive departmental testing programs, Smith told an audience at the IACP’s recent annual conference in Boston—not some set of arbitrary “norms” designed for judging the population as a whole.

And Smith, president of FitForcetm: Total Fitness Solutions for Public Safety, does favor career-long department-wide testing of every officer’s physical condition, with no slack cut for such variables as gender. “If the job is the same for everyone, why have gender adjustments?” he asked. “Are there certain calls you don’t send females out on? It’s one job. There should be one standard.”

In fact, he said, “This is a requirement of Section 106 of the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which expressly forbids among other things gender-adjusted employment requirements.”

Considering the hullabaloo that dusted up recently when just one chief in Florida admonished the “jelly bellies” on his force to tone up voluntarily, Smith may have a long crusade ahead of him to revolutionize the profession. But he claims that even some police unions, traditional tooth-and-nail antagonists of post-hire testing, are beginning to see things his way.

“Some unions now want ongoing standards to be mandated by the employer,” he said. “There are some significant changes taking place.”

And not a moment too soon, according to the dire research stats Smith laid on IACP attendees. He claimed that:

• up to 20% of today’s LEOs cannot perform physical tasks essential to the job;
• up to 95% of the females randomly tested in validation studies cannot perform such tasks;
• in some locales, academy physical demands have been lowered to graduate recruits, who are not then tested again throughout their careers;
• use-of-force critical incident data show that lack of fitness leads to injuries and failure to respond effectively on duty.

“A lot of law enforcement work is self-initiated,” Smith noted. “There are a lot of ways to avoid work requiring physical fitness” if you are out of shape. Moreover, “unfit officers who do get hurt tend to stay out longer and cost the department more than fit officers who get injured.”

For the most part, Smith believes, these physical shortcomings are “not an ability issue but a training issue. With six to 12 weeks of training on the right focused program, you can reverse poor conditioning and get officers to the point of physical readiness.” He recommends, however, that an agency integrate mandated standards and training over a two- to three-year period.

“We’re not suggesting Olympian expectations,” Smith quickly pointed out. “Who is the least fit person in your department who you think can still do the job if they have to, who can run enough, who can survive a physical encounter and so on? Get a picture in your mind. That’s the level of fitness for the standard,” and, he said, it is backed by court decisions.

In practical terms, one measure would be the ability to run 1.5 miles in 15.5-17 minutes. “That’s the lowest level of fitness that predicts the physical capacity to do the job,” Smith declared.

In reality, “the fitness level required to do the job is relatively low. But it is higher than more agencies currently demand.”

It’s important, Smith stressed, that testing programs be validated; that is, that standards established and tested “relate to actual job demands,” such as extracting a resistant subject from a vehicle, pushing a stalled car, pursuing a fleeing suspect on foot, fighting from a ground position and so on. “You can demonstrate what the daily demands of policing are and what the emergency demands are. From this understanding of job demands, physical readiness standards and training programs can be developed and validated.”

He cautions against merely adopting “the usual norm-based standards of fitness” as a convenient shortcut. “A lot of agencies have done this, but it’s not a valid test” of readiness because there are “no specific links to the job.”

Indeed, Smith recommended that each agency “validate” its own standards. In some respects, job requirements may vary from place to place and it’s “too arbitrary to just take some other agency’s standards.”

Whatever testing is devised, an officer should be able to pass each element without totally depleting his energies. On the street, you never know when a “routine” call may escalate to an extreme, sustained situation, “so you need to have some reserve to call on.”

In summary, Smith recommended a three-step plan for a department “to insure physical readiness:”

1. Identify the physical demands of the job in your agency;
2. Develop standards related to these demands;
3. Develop programs that will help in-service officers meet these standards.

Assumptions are sometimes made that physical fitness is no longer a relevant LE concern because the job doesn’t require much physical activity any more, given the development of better control technology and training in verbal skills. Smith emphatically dismisses this perspective as faulty.

“Technology and verbal skills don’t always work,” he says. And while strenuous physical activity may not be an everyday demand, “neither is shooting a gun, but you still qualify three times a year.

“An agency has a fundamental responsibility to ensure the physical readiness of its work force. Each member must be capable of performing the frequent and/or critical physical job tasks incumbent on them at a responsible level of proficiency, without undue risk to themselves, fellow officers or the public.”

To unions and others who argue against mandatory, career-long standards and testing, Smith posed this provocative question:

“How can you defend one officer’s right to be unfit and not defend another officer’s right to have fit backup?”

[For more information on Smith’s FitForcetm program and the consultation and instructor training he provides, contact him in Salem, Mass., at (978) 745-3629 or by e-mail at jfitforce@aol.com or visit the FitForce Web site]

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