Law Enforcement Physical Fitness Standards and Title VII

Article excerpt

When deciding to establish physical fitness standards for potential or onboard law enforcement employees, law enforcement administrators must be cognizant of the requirements imposed by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 [1] and by the Civil Rights Act of 1991. [2] This federal legislation requires that all employers of more than 15 employees must refrain from policies and procedures that either expressly or effectively discriminate against specified categories of individuals except under limited circumstances.


The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits various forms of discrimination based on race, color, sex, national origin, or religion. Title VII of this act prohibits such discrimination in the workplace when the discrimination results in the loss of an employment benefit. Virtually all employment actions fall under the purview of Title VII. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that Title VII prohibits not only express discrimination (disparate treatment) but also prohibits neutral employment actions that have the effect of discriminating against a particular group protected by the act (disparate impact). [3] The Civil Rights Act of 1991 established burdens of proof and other procedural requirements in litigating a Title VII action. As a result of this legislation, the only defense an employer has when a facially neutral employment standard effectively discriminates against a protected group is to prove that the standard is "job related for the position in question and consistent with business necessity." [4]

How do these laws apply in the area of physical fitness standards? They apply when a physical fitness standard limits the employment rights of a group protected by Title VII. Most notably, they apply when a particular physical fitness standard has a disparate impact on women when compared to how the same standard affects men. An ongoing case from Pennsylvania demonstrates the impact of these laws.

Lanning v. Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority

In 1991, as a part of an effort to upgrade its 234-officer police force, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA), which operates a commuter rail system in Philadelphia and its suburbs, instituted a series of physical fitness requirements for both onboard and potential police officers. Among these was a requirement that applicants run 1.5 miles in 12 minutes. Failure to meet this standard disqualified an applicant from employment as a police officer. Prior to instituting this standard, SEPTA contracted with a noted exercise physiologist, Dr. Paul Davis, to develop a physical fitness test for its police officers. Dr. Davis conducted extensive studies to determine what physical abilities are required for a SEPTA police officer. [5] Dr. Davis determined that SEPTA officers often are called upon to run various distances in the performance of their duties. He further determined that a specific aerobic capacity was necessary for an officer to adequately perform the physical requirements of a SEPTA officer. After determining that this aerobic capacity would have a, "...draconian effect on women applicants," Dr. Davis decided that a slightly lower aerobic capacity would meet the goals of SEPTA in improving the physical abilities of its police officers, as well as their job performance. Dr. Davis advised SEPTA that applicants who could run 1.5 miles in 12 minutes would possess this slightly lower aerobic capacity. [6]

During the years 1991, 1993, and 1996, almost 60 percent of male applicants to the SEPTA police met the 1.5 miles in 12 minutes standard while an average of 12 percent of female applicants met the standard. SEPTA also began a physical fitness test of incumbent officers, which included an aerobic capacity test. Because of a grievance filed by their police union, SEPTA stopped disciplining officers who failed the test shortly after instituting it. Instead, the agency rewarded those officers who met the fitness standards. …