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Career physical fitness standards

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By Ralph Mroz
PoliceOne Contributor

A vigorously discussed subject in police circles a decade ago was that of career physical fitness standards for police officers. The subject seemed to fall off the radar following the terrorist attacks on September 11th and the plethora of new law enforcement topics and concerns that resulted from them. Nonetheless, the idea stayed alive, with more agencies placing a premium (literally, with monetary bonuses) on physical fitness, and with high-profile stories about agency heads insisting that their officers be fit (LAPD, Chicago and Winter Haven, FL for example).

There are arguments for and argument against career standards. Let’s take them one at a time, with the “for” arguments first.

Arguments for career standards
When you really need a cop, you usually need physical intervention. Here’s an old academy question for you: what makes a police officer a police officer? The badge? The gun? Nope. It’s the arrest powers. That is, only a police officer can deprive a fellow citizen of their freedom. Your mayor doesn’t have this power; neither does the governor; even the President doesn’t – only a police officer does. So what makes a cop a cop is that he or she can arrest someone. Anyone can write citations; anyone can write reports; anyone can perform investigations. But only a cop can slap cuffs on someone. Now, arresting someone is a physical activity, and one in which much of the danger of the profession lies. It is during an arrest that you are most likely to get into a physical confrontation with your suspect. Common sense says that you’d want to be in good physical shape to do this, and common sense also suggests that your agency would only want to have physically fit officers doing arrests. So when you are really a cop (when you’re arresting someone), you are engaged in strenuous (or potentially strenuous) activity, and physical fitness counts.

If you needed to be fit to get into the academy, then why not be fit now? Police academies used to have physical fitness standards and many still do. Presumably these standards exist because some reasonably smart people decided that cops should be fit. If being fit is a requirement of the job, then it’s a requirement of the job. To contend otherwise is to argue for eliminating fitness standards for academy entrance to begin with, and few people would take that position.

Out of shape cops are embarrassing. This is, I hope, self evident.

Police officers are supposed to be role models. Also self-explanatory.

Fat cops are a danger to themselves. If you get into a foot chase, or just a high-stress event, with a fat cop, you’d better hope you remember CPR, and that there’s a de-fib unit nearby. This is just basic health: being fat makes you much more susceptible to heart attacks under stress.

If they are a danger to themselves, they are a danger to you. If your corpulent comrade is the guy you’re relying on to help you run the suspect down, make the arrest, or return fire effectively, and he goes down, it’s not good for either your survival or your success.

Arguments against career physical fitness standards
You can do your job just fine out of shape. This isn’t entirely true, because more or less by definition, the physical parts of the job are better performed by physically fit officers. On the other hand, many heavy (read: fat) cops do just fine in street fights, and many are excellent shooters. As long as they don’t exert themselves, they can be fine. Besides, much of the job isn’t physical. Whether the majority of the job requires arrest powers or not, the fact is that most cops spend most of their day sedentary. This is more true as you progress up the ranks, and many command officers (and some officers working special assignments) are never on the street at all, and are never in any more danger, nor do they have to perform physical work more than, the average citizen. In fact, some of the very best command officers I work with are on the heavy side. Several of them I’d very much want with me in a bad situation.

Some people are naturally fat. I used to say “but…” to this, but I’m becoming more aware of the simple fact that some people are genetically more susceptible to weight gain than others. While diet and exercise can keep these people fit, admittedly their diet has to be more severely restricted than it does for naturally thin people. Besides, our society is full of crappy food, and eating “clean” can be difficult. On the other side of that proposition, however, is the fact that healthy food is now widely available, and requires just a little effort to get.

Consider the Pima Indians, who enhabited an area of the southwest in which their metabolism had to extract every last bit of energy and nutrition from their meager natural food. Once exposed to a typical (read: fatty) American diet, they gained weight, and many individuals now exceed 300 pounds. Yet there are examples of severely obese Pimas carefully controlling their diet and becoming thin, healthy marathons runners. This task is much more difficult for them than just about any other ethnic group, so if they can do it, then I propose that anyone can. The key is to understand the biochemistry of weight gain, and there is a lot of bunk out there on the subject. MDs used to preach that all diets were fads and that it was a simple matter of eating fewer calories than you expended. We now know that that’s not true, and that the situation is much more complicated. I don’t want to make this a treatise on the science of weight loss, but I’ll just say that the notions of glycemic index and macro-nutrient (carbs, protein and fat) composition play a large role.

Getting heavy is a fact of life as you age. This is true to an extent, since your metabolism slows down and key hormone concentrations (such as testosterone) drop precipitously as you age. But see above—much of this can be controlled with diet and exercise, and helpful nutritional supplementation is hardly voodoo (but it is a complex topic.) With a little research and good advice on the subject, you can mitigate many of the effects. Also, exercise plays a key role in mitigating age-related weight gain.

What’s preventing cops from staying fit?
Laziness and complacency. ‘Nuff said.

Our unions. Hey, I’m the guy that unionized my agency, so I’m hardly anti-union. But when the unions say that we can’t be required to be sprayed if we carry OC, or can’t be required to be tased if we carry a TASER, they do us a disservice. Likewise, when they say that physical fitness standards can’t be mandatory, they are actually hurting the members who will stay fat and/or unfit and/or otherwise unhealthy.

Our lack of free time. This, I’m convinced, is the big one, and it’s one that I have tremendous sympathy for. And this cause—lack of free time—is intimately tied to the low pay of most police jobs. Cops routinely work forced or otherwise required overtime, and many work overtime by choice just to make a decent yearly wage. If you only worked 8 hours a day or 40 hours a week, you’d have the same time available to you to get to the gym, to shop for healthy food, to go for a run etc., as the typical civilian. But if you are working two shifts a day, or 4-5 hours of overtime a day, well, there are only so many hours in any day and something’s got to give. While not all cops are poorly-paid, the fact is that low pay is endemic in our profession.

There are many causes for the low pay of cops and here are three:
1) it’s still regarded as a public works job for which everyone should be eligible—not as a profession
2) the lack of unionization, particularly in the South (I have a business management background, so I understand the bad side of unions too – just look what they did to the auto industry, for example – but I also appreciate the occasional necessity of collective bargaining)
3) For some reason, society doesn’t value its two most important jobs—school teachers and public safety personnel—as much as they say they do (I’m purposelfully excluding any discussion of military pay and benefits here to stay focused on civilian life)

Now, I can’t let this subject of low pay pass without commenting on a related issue that helps to cause it, and that is contractually or legally stipulated outside employment for police officers. For example, my state (Massachusetts) is one of several that require a police officer to direct traffic when there is construction or other work (such a tree work) that might interfere with the flow of traffic. Since the rates that are paid for these details are set by the agency that the officer works for, and since the riad contractor—not the officer’s agency—pays the officer, there is every incentive for the agency to jack the rate up to whatever makes their officers happy. In Massachusetts now, over $40.00/hour is common. Naturally, cops love these after-work details, and for many officers the money from them is a substantial part of their income. In fact, many cops here routinely work 16 hours a day—their assigned shift and an after-work road detail. As you can imagine, this results in tired cops and cops with no time to eat properly or to exercise. A similar situation exists in many parts of the country.

Of course, the law that mandates cops at traffic work sites is regarded as a God-send here, and lawmakers who block attempts to repeal it are lionized by officers and their unions. But I tell the guys and gals here that they’ve been snookered. If their agencies didn’t have the doling out of well-paid after-hours details (which are paid by other people’s money) to compensate for the low wages they receive from their police job, then the agencies be forced to pay them better to begin with. That’s simple supply and demand. Instead, they’ve been tricked into working twice as many hours to get the wage that they should be getting from their regular job alone. So the law that ostensively helped cops by making lucrative after-hours work available to them has actually had the effect of depressing their police pay, keeping them exhausted, and sucking up all the time that a normal person has to maintain a level of fitness (let alone raise a family, etc.).

How do we get fit?
There are apparently some legal issues with requiring fitness standards, and of course there’s usually union opposition. But police officers – like all human beings we respond to incentives – and many agencies have taken the step of offering bonuses to officers that meet a (usually pretty easy) fitness standard. Naturally, the greater the incentive, the more officers will participate. This is a great deal all around in which everyone wins: the officers, the agency, the insurance carriers, and the taxpayers. I strongly encourage officers to push their agency to institute a generous fitness incentive.

Installing weight rooms in the agency is also a good idea in that it will get some officers to work out that might not, although I know many officers with nice weight gyms in their department who prefer to join a local gym instead, just “to get out of the building.”

Many tactical teams have workout time built into their paid shifts. That’s something to think about next time your contract is up for negotiation. What if you had a half-hour of paid workout time every shift?

It’s important to realize that for most officers, getting and staying reasonably fit is not a lot of work, nor is it expensive. It takes some discipline, but nothing that’s worth anything doesn’t. A half hour a day will usually do the trick: run 3 miles every other day, and do 18-24 weight sets in the gym on the other days, and take a day a week off. That’s not much to add to your life, in most cases. I mean, asking someone to sacrifice two hours of sleep a night would be asking a lot, but getting up a half-hour earlier? Or watching one-half hour less of TV? I agree that not everyone actually has a half-hour to give up a day, but most of us can, especially if it’s for something important, and there’s precious little that’s more important than our own health.

The cost is also minimal – you can run for the cost of a pair of shoes a year, and weight workouts can be done quite effectively at home with just body weight exercises (just Google “body weight exercises).”  Finally, eating right (and certainly eating less) won’t increase your food budget by much if at all, and any increase will be offset by you’re not eating junk.

So: career fitness standars for cops? I can’t think of a good reason why not.

What do you think?

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