Mandating Police Fitness Would Improve Public Relations and Performance

When someone utters the words “police officer” to you, what images or experiences come to mind? The vast majority of people I have spoken to seem to recall an overweight cop with a bad attitude. Things like “I hope he doesn’t ever have to chase anyone” or “I could take that guy if I were a criminal” are quoted too often in my research. Even worse, in this day and age, others conjure images of police brutality and incompetency. And what about security officers? They represent the new wave of private protection for our businesses and government. Do we really believe they are capable when we see them? Let’s face it; the impressions of police and security officers most have, even ones who support and appreciate them, are poor. I contend there is a solution to many aspects of improving both public perception and the actual performance of our American law enforcement and security community – mandated fitness standards.

The first impression either a criminal or someone in need of an officer receives is the most important. “Officer Presence” is also the first stage in the use of force continuum, and sets the stage for what might happen next. A physically fit officer, male or female, enters a scene with an air of confidence that is silently but distinctly communicable. Their uniform fits perfectly, they are energetic and interested and they exude what we all secretly expect from an officer dedicated to protect others. Without a word, they impress upon us that they are proud, capable and undoubtedly professional. The FBI conducted a series of studies, analyzing hundreds of assaults on law enforcement officers and determined that officer presence played a key role in whether a violent offender decided to engage an officer or not Many think that Officer Presence is a mere donning of a uniform and being present at a scene. I contend that in many cases, simply being present at a scene in a uniform may actually incite certain criminals to engage in violence toward that officer or others present. The element of bona-fide confidence amidst a truly challenging foe is absolute. An officer need not even verbalize the presence they command, if it is true. Be knowledgeable, be capable, engage their intuition with your confidence…be fit.  

The confidence achieved through fitness also reduces the amount of physical confrontations. The old saying, “If they smell blood, they will attack” applies here. A confident officer takes control of a scene and calms the people around them. They do not allow a criminal to think that there might be an opportunity to take advantage of them. This does not mean it will never happen of course, but it would greatly reduce the amount of physical altercations and, in turn, lower the number of police involved critical incidents. Although being fit and confident does not mean an officer is the most “skilled fighter” to deal with a non-compliant criminal combatant, they are absolutely essential elements in gaining control of a violent situation without resorting to excessive force.

A teacher, a pastor, a senator, a police or security officer; all are held to a higher standard of accountability due to their specific training, education, capabilities, authority and their duty. A necessary component of the standards and accountability of an officer is to care enough about their duty to protect the public by maintaining a reasonable level of fitness. It is simply a part of the job description. If an officer is unable to sprint to aid someone, chase a criminal down, or control a violent person in dangerous situations, they are doing a disservice to the community they have sworn to protect. They also run the risk of having to resort to an escalation of force in order to gain control of someone they should have otherwise been capable of controlling.

Maintaining a reasonable level of fitness has been proven to aid in the level of stress a person experiences. In police and security work, so many officers complain of marital and work-related stress that it is almost epidemic. This is totally unnecessary and certainly avoidable in many cases when fitness is ignored. Mental focus is also an essential aspect of their work. An officer in a mandated fitness program will be much more likely to perform at his or her mental capacity at work. The Mayo Clinic provided insight into this fact:
Exercise increases your overall health and your sense of well-being, which puts more pep in your step every day. But exercise also has some direct stress-busting benefits.
It pumps up your endorphins. Physical activity helps bump up the production of your brain's feel-good neurotransmitters, called endorphins. Although this function is often referred to as a runner's high, a rousing game of tennis or a nature hike also can contribute to this same feeling.
It's meditation in motion. After a fast-paced game of racquetball or several laps in the pool, you'll often find that you've forgotten the day's irritations and concentrated only on your body's movements.
As you begin to regularly shed your daily tensions through movement and physical activity, you may find that this focus on a single task, and the resulting energy and optimism, can help you remain calm and clear in everything you do.
It improves your mood. Regular exercise can increase self-confidence, it can relax you, and it can lower the symptoms associated with mild depression and anxiety. Exercise can also improve your sleep, which is often disrupted by stress, depression and anxiety. All of these exercise benefits can ease your stress levels and give you a sense of command over your body and your life.

Over the years, many security and police departments have toiled over the fairest way to implement fitness into their respective departments. Civil-service protected police departments have made it nearly impossible to implement a mandated fitness program unless grandfathering the tenured and apparently less accountable officers is an option. There are many schools of thought on this topic, but the key is to implement something. Generally speaking, there should be an incentive-laden standard that is tested at least annually as a contingency of employment, that is the same for all officers and that represents the actual physical requirements for the same job function. The Civil Rights Act of 1991 limits an officer’s right to sue their department over issues like standardized or mandated fitness testing based on any type of discrimination. Others still contend however, that Title VII prohibits such across-the-board testing. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a federal law that prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, and religion. Officer Jamie Johnson of the Fort Worth Police Department commented on this issue. Johnson’s 26-year career has been spent working with professionals within as well as outside the law enforcement field to develop instructional curriculums, municipal policies, and legislative statutes related to Law Enforcement Use of Force and Fitness/Wellness Development. He offers specific expertise in the development of Use of Force and Fitness Training programs: “The real challenge with implementing any defendable law enforcement related fitness standard is the validity of the test itself.  The police officer’s job varies from state to state, city to city, and even among individual departments.  The essential job functions that define a New York City officer walking a beat differ greatly from a rural sheriff’s deputy who spends most of his/her time in a car.  This makes validating a standardized test that will survive legal challenges very difficult.  This forces a department that wants to implement testing to invest both time and money into a validation process specific to their locale, which can be cost prohibitive to all but the largest of departments.  When this is done correctly, though, fitness standards will stand up to Title VII and CRA 1991 legal challenges.  The department then must find a path of implementation that has the least impact on employees to have any hope of success.”

The truth is, there is a duty to maintain fitness standards as a sworn police or security officer in this country. There is almost no excuse not to pay some amount of attention to the advantages that a fitness mandate, and resulting professional and personal improvement, would bear overall. Public perception and confidence, officer confidence and performance – all improved to make a marked difference in our increasingly volatile nation.