'Law Enforcement Officer Performance and Reaction Drill' Program: The Reality and The Issues

By John S. O'Connor II, Ph.D. and Officer Gregory Price Williams

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It was a rainy Friday afternoon when the call came about a possible domestic disturbance. A patrol car was about two minutes from the location and immediately radioed police communications they were responding. The only information available was that a neighbor reported a man and women in a house at the given address fighting and that the male was possibly drunk and screaming "I'm going to kill you."

Officer Smith and Donald were the closest sector car. The Officers arrived at the address they quietly parked the car in an adjacent driveway and cautiously approached the front door. Officer Smith knocked and announced their presence, identifying themselves as police officers, the officers requested to speak with a member of the household. Suddenly a shotgun blast exploded through the front door followed by unintelligible screaming. Neither officer was hit, but Officer Donald was knocked off the porch and fell backwards into the yard breaking his ankle.

Officer Smith jumped off the porch, pulled his weapon, and looked for the perpetrator behind the shattered door to see if there was still a threat to himself or his partner who was lying dazed in the yard. Officer Smith saw the suspect run to the rear of the house and then heard footsteps running up stairs. The officer's first reaction was to get his partner behind cover and call for help. He tactically advanced up to where his partner laid, saw he was dazed and injured. Instinctively he grabbed his partner by the jacket collar and started to drag all 210 pounds of him the 50 feet across the yard to the patrol car for a total distance of about fifty feet. This entire incident took place in less than two minutes. Could you have moved the downed officer? If your answer is yes, how do you know for sure? When is the last time your agency tested your ability to perform this job specific related task?

The above situations are real and not unlike many that occur without warning everyday to police officers across the nation. They illustrate common physical demands that are part of everyday policing duties. These types of incidents are not influenced by age, gender or race, but driven solely by the nature of the job. The job of law enforcement drives the requirements for skill and knowledge training, but even more, the job identifies the need for job related physical fitness. It is not an uncommon occurrence for an officer to be required to move another person or to sprint short distances wearing a vest and equipment belt. When the failure to perform the physical task increases the danger of a situation or compromises the final outcome, what does a Police agency do? Is there a policy in place and is there a Legally defensible solution to the problem.

Understanding the Language of Physical Performance
There is little disagreement that policing has a physical component, despite attempts by some to minimize its importance. However, understanding the basic terminology of physical performance and developing a realistic performance philosophy are prerequisites for addressing the problem and solving the issues surrounding police officer fitness.

People are often confused by the terms physical ability, physical fitness and health. Often used interchangeably, they are not the same. Physical ability refers to the capacity and suitability of an individual to perform specific physical work. Often confused with physical fitness it is not the same, but more a reference to specific physical capacities in the response to specific physical demands. These capacities are manifested in the form of motor skills such as running, jumping, lifting, pulling, crawling, etc. For example, lifting an equipment bag from the trunk of a car and carrying it 100 meters or moving another individual without help. Both require degrees of strength, flexibility, and endurance which if not present make the tasks impossible. A person may have physical capacity for some physical activities, such as aerobic power for running, but not others, such as lacking strength for lifting and carrying. The evaluation of physical ability determines if an individual has the underlying physical capacities to perform a specific task at a given level of performance. Physical ability testing for law enforcement seeks to determine if an individual has the physical capacity to meet the basic physical demands of police work and therefore is physically suitable for employment as a police officer. If one lacks the physical ability to perform the physical work associated with the position it is unlikely they will be successful in the job.

Physical fitness refers to the general ability of the body to perform physical work and still have a reserve. It is associated with the five underlying physical components that determine physical performance (the components of physical fitness): aerobic capacity, muscular strength, muscular endurance, flexibility and body composition (fat vs. lean muscle mass). The proper use of the concept of physical fitness in law enforcement should mean reference to one's physical conditioning level to meet or exceed the physical demands of policing. But unfortunately the term physical fitness is mostly commonly used academically as a relative term related to size, age and gender. Being strong for your size or compared to others your age and gender has no relevance to the absolute physical demands you may face as a police officer. The 'norming' of physical performance standards is misplaced when it comes to job related fitness. A physical task such as moving your 200-pound partner 50 feet doesn?t care if you are male or female, 25 or 50, big or small. The physical requirement is what it is; someone must move that downed partner to save his/her life. On any given day that someone may be you. Every cop intuitively knows this.

Physical conditioning, fitness and physical training refer to the performance of activities routinely (training) that improve physical capacity (conditioning) as well as to maintain a level of capacity (fitness) over time. While there are good reasons to look at relative fitness, one should not lose site of the fact that it's job performance that really counts, not how fast you can run a mile or how many sit-ups you can do.

Indicators of relative physical capacity only have meaning when they are job related and unfortunately most are not.

Health refers to the proper function and the disease state of the body. While good health is a desirable state, it is quite common for people in less than perfect health to be able to perform very well physically, meaning they still have the capacity to do physical work. A controlled diabetic is a common example of someone with less than perfect health, but who can still possess the physical capacity to meet particular job demands. Individuals that are over weight are another example. The opposite can also be true.

Many individuals in good health have poor physical capacity and are incapable of performing physically even the most mundane physical tasks. Individuals with good health but poor muscle strength are common examples.

The bottom line, physical ability and physical fitness and health do not necessarily equate. But understanding their meanings and differences, however subtle, is important for developing sound physical fitness policy and programs that will improve job performance.

Understanding the Problem and the Consequences
It is a sad reality that the physical ability of many law enforcement officers is not where it should be. Too many police officers just do not have the physical capacity, do not condition themselves and are lacking the fitness level necessary to satisfactorily perform the essential physical functions of law enforcement. Simply stated that is the problem. It is not a stretch to say that if 40% of the population is overweight and physically unfit that same figure applies to police officers. Some would argue that the correct figure is much higher in law enforcement. Further, the lack of fitness may be even more of a detriment for police officers because of the physically denigrating psychological stress of the job. Heart attacks kill more police officers than criminals. The Blair Study, a review of the effects of fitness on law enforcement officers, suggests that 475 unfit police officers die each year from heart disease. It further concludes that becoming fit would reduce cardiovascular deaths by 52% and deaths from all causes by 44%. Clearly, there is a carry over between being fit and health status beyond job performance.

Without a doubt, inadequate job related physical fitness reduces the performance of unfit officers. For many reasons, too many departments compromise physical performance and fitness standards, which results in lowering the performance of the entire force. The end result of failure to face the fitness problem becomes watered down, ineffective physical performance standards set at the level of the minimally capable. Departments that have fitness policies and/or standards that institutionalize mediocrity do a disservice to the public as well as their members. If physical fitness is ultimately a personal responsibility, embarrassing physical performance standards and laughable fitness policy is a clearly a leadership failure.

The Issues
The real stumbling block that besets fitness in the law enforcement community is how to address the five basic issues that seem to be the sticking points to development and implementation of meaningful physical fitness programs. These basic issues are:

  • What level of physical ability should be required for police officers
  • How should physical ability and fitness be evaluated
  • What should be the consequences of failing minimum physical requirements
  • Who should be responsible for physical fitness
  • When and where should physical fitness training take place
Although the physical job requirements and responsibilities are actually amazingly clear, it's the issues that cannot seem to be agreed upon. And yet, there are many sound approaches that can be effectively employed to address the issues. Organizationally the first step to correcting the situation is for department leaders to step forward and establish fitness standards that reflect the realistic physical demands of the job. Such a straightforward approach requires solid leadership at the highest levels and an understanding that you cannot successfully implement physical fitness standards without a program that supports compliance and emphasizes training. Often times finding fitness leadership is just as hard as instilling fitness responsibility. But no one said being a cop was easy.

The Answer: The LEOPARD (The Law Enforcement Officer Performance and Reaction Drill Program)
We know that officer fitness is an issue. But finding an approach that makes sense, creates excitement and is cost-effective has been an illusive target.

Dr. Paul Davis and Dr. Jack O'Connor, the creators of the Firefighter Combat Challenge have conducted over ten years of job task specific research. They have developed a high profile, exciting and fun way to policing skills training, while promoting health and wellness. A marked departure from the tired, staid ways of the past, the LEOPARD is putting a fresh face on the law enforcement fitness equation.

The LEOPARD Challenge, acronym for Law Enforcement Officer Performance And Reaction Drill, is an intense, spirited head-to-head skills competition based upon the physical skills routinely encountered in the law enforcement setting. Unlike sports that exist solely for entertainment value, the LEOPARD is pure competition with a purpose; it?s about performing one of the most dangerous and demanding jobs safer and better. Wearing a BDU-style trouser and the appropriate load bearing equipment, officers simulate the physical demands of everyday police life by sequentially negotiating a series of job specific linked tasks.

Wearing a uniform-style trouser and the common equipment of a Constable On Patrol: vest, helmet, and equipment belt with pistol, flashlight and hand cuffs, officers simulate the routine tasks of everyday police operations by sequentially negotiating a series of linked tasks. The course begins from the driver's seat of a patrol car, with hands positioned on the steering wheel at the 10 and 2 o'clock positions. At the start command competitors must first release the seatbelt, then exiting the vehicle scale a 6-ft. barrier. Upon clearing the barrier, competitors proceed to a culvert crawl, where they must illuminate a photocell target with their flashlight at the end of the 6-ft. long tunnel before crawling through the 2-ft. high culvert.

After exiting the culvert, competitors simulate a building entry by moving through a 2-ft. by 4-ft. window ledge (30" from the ground) by opening the pane. At this point competitors have the option of engaging a pop-up moving target for a 10 second bonus before climbing over the sill. For the following task they scale and descend a 4-foot staircase. Next, competitors crawl through another 6 ft. culvert and then must engage a set of three targets, double-tapping (hitting twice) each target from a prone or kneeling position. Moving to the next station, competitors apply handcuffs to an arrest-simulator mannequin. Then it's on to the officer down rescue. This requires dragging a life-sized mannequin a distance of 50-ft. A successful rescue will bring the competitors to a second shooting scenario, where they must also engage a second set of three targets but now from a standing position, again double-tapping each target. Finally, competitors must re-surmount the 6-ft. barrier before crossing the finish line through a set of saloon-style doors. The course is scored as total time to completion with time penalties assigned for missed targets and/or failure to perform required tasks.

Making the LEOPARD program a part of your pre-employment testing and fit for duty yearly evaluations will work wonders for your agency. The program will promote fitness, raise morale and create more productivity. The shirt pins and awards programs are great motivators. Share the vision and bring a LEOPARD course and program to your agency. We look forward to seeing you out along the 25,000 mile 2004 LEOPARD National Tour. www.TheLeopard.org

Dr. Jack O'Connor, Ph.D., FACSM
At the time of his retirement from the US Army, Jack was the only infantry officer with a doctorate in Exercise Science. This unique combination coupled with his airborne, ranger and combat experience suited him well as the Executive Officer of the Army's Physical Fitness School where he lead the historic evolution of the military's approach to physical training. He received his doctorate from Arizona State and is a fellow of ACSM and a past Chairman of the Occupational Physiology Working Group. His current responsibilities at OTC include TV production and creation of the World SWAT Challenge and Conference, as well as directing OTC's support activities for the Army Ranger Challenge and the US Marine Corps Super Squad Challenge.

Officer Greg Williams
A respected police veteran and former college athlete, Greg successfully completed the FBI Instructor Development program and is nationally recognized for his expertise in Canine Patrol Operations, Police Patrol Tactics, Officer Safety and Street Survival Counter Measures. He is a highly decorated officer who has survived a line-of-duty shooting as well as been awarded several medals for valor and bravery. Officer Williams is the author of Patrol and the Police K9 and The Handlers Edge! Greg is currently the manager of OTC's LEOPARD (Law Enforcement Officer Performance And Reaction Drill) program.

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