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Keeping cops fit for duty challenges Calif. agencies

Most rookies are fit, but no police agency in the state requires they stay that way

By Natalie Neysa Alund
The Daily Review

HAYWARD, Calif. — When Zach Hoyer graduated from the police academy and joined the Hayward Police Department in 2002, the 6-foot-4-inch rookie weighed 265 pounds.

A decade later, he weighed close to 400.

"I'm not trying to make excuses," said Hoyer, 36, a 13-year department veteran who in the past year brought his weight down to 275 pounds. "It was my own fault. Bad lifestyle choices. Working long hours and midnight shifts, eating unhealthy and having Jack in the Box three or four nights a week."

Hoyer's not alone. Most rookies are fit, but no police agency in the state requires they stay that way, despite being in jobs where fitness is often critical for officers and the citizens they've sworn to protect.

"There are very few jobs where your life might depend on your level of fitness," said Lt. Ray Backman, a 25-year veteran with the Oakland Police Department who taught fitness at the Oakland Police Academy for 17 years and believes it is critical for officers to stay in shape. "I've been in foot chases that have gone for multiple blocks, and you're wearing 25-30 pounds of equipment."

Add to that the stress of an officers' job, which creates health problems that can be exacerbated by extra weight. And yet the same stress often leads to poor personal habits. In January, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study of obesity vs. profession showed that after truck drivers and movers, police and firefighters were ranked the third-most hefty.

"Officers can start the job at a nice lean weight, slack off and gain 50 pounds, and sometimes there's nothing that can be done," said Anthony Owens, Alameda County Sheriff's Office Regional Training Center project coordinator.

The state requires police academy graduates to pass rigorous tests that include an obstacle course, a body drag, a fence climb and a 500-yard run. About 75 percent of recruits pass.

But that's the last such requirement officers face. Of California's 608 public safety agencies, none require a regular fitness test to stay on the force, according to the state's Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training.

"Once you satisfy the minimum requirements, you're in," commission spokesman Charles Evans said. "After that, it's up to local agencies to decide if they should give regular maintenance fitness tests."

Few agencies do.

These days, some departments require specialized officers, such as SWAT and bomb squad members, to pass physical tests both to be assigned to and to stay on those teams. In the past, many agencies required those routine tests for all officers.

"In L.A., we used to take physical fitness twice a year. But it went away," said Evans, a former Los Angeles Police Department officer.

Ditto at the California Highway Patrol. Annual fitness tests were abolished during 1995 contract negotiations.

"Essentially, it was the cost — securing facilities, staffing and the logistics of testing officers statewide. But additionally there were workers' compensation claims from some of the employees preparing for the test," CHP spokeswoman Fran Clader said.

"If you're training to meet a physical requirement and get hurt, guess who's on the hook?" asked Alameda County Sheriff's Office Sgt. J.D. Nelson.

Is lack of fitness a problem? Many observers — and some cops themselves — say yes.

"More and more, they rely on weapons, technology and cars and are unaccustomed to actual physical labor when they assist the community," said Andrea Pritchett, a founding member of Berkeley Copwatch. "Not having them in shape is dangerous for the public."

What suffers could be reaction time for officers, who must often act quickly to save lives, keep up with suspects in foot chases, jump over walls, scale fences and physically subdue suspects. Even public confidence is diminished.

"It just doesn't look good if you get out of a car and you're sweating by the time you get up to a person's house to talk to them," said Deputy Chief Ed Medina of the Richmond Police Department.

It's also dangerous for the officers themselves.

"Physical condition is very important for officer safety and also for their health," Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern said. "If we improve their health, we run a more efficient agency because we will reduce our costs associated with physical injuries and we will reduce our costs in regards to overtime replacement for those people being sick or injured due to poor physical condition."

For those reasons, some agencies take measures to keep cops fit.

Union City police officers can get free memberships at the Mark Green Sports Center and the department mandates quarterly defensive tactics training to refresh officers on making arrests without using weapons.

"If they don't do well we take them aside, gently nudge them in a positive direction to try and get them into a structured fitness program," Union City police Cmdr. Ben Horner said.

San Francisco holds mandatory fitness testing twice a year. Officers aren't booted from the force if they don't do well, but they lose out on an important incentive for passing: 20 hours of extra vacation time.

San Jose is working to create a wellness program, Officer Albert Morales said, and the agency encourages officers to use the gyms at police headquarters.

Still, addressing fitness issues can be tricky, San Ramon Police Department Lt. Dan Pratt said.

"If we get into talking about people's weight, there's all sorts of federal laws that ban discrimination based on that," he said. "But if an issue arises where an officer can't perform his/her duties, then we handle it."

And there is internal resistance to requiring fitness programs, rather than simply encouraging it. "I can't even imagine how we'd find time for officer to participate in a fitness program on duty when we don't even have enough officers on the street," San Jose Police Officer Association Union Vice President John Robb said. "Everyone is working overtime. It's a great idea if you have enough officers, but we just don't. It would be unsafe for residents."

Hoyer, a homicide detective in Hayward, said the choice to lose weight is personal. He lost about 100 pounds in a year by eating a low-carb diet, cutting out junk food and jogging.

"You don't have to tell people they're fat. They know. They look in the mirror," he said. "In the end, unless the state requires a mandatory fitness test, it's up to each person individually to decide where they need to be."

Copyright 2014 The Daily Review

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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