The need for legally defensible methodologies and outcomes
There is a tremendous need in law enforcement for legally defensible physical fitness testing methods. Several factors have brought this area of personnel selection into the limelight, including increased levels of public safety employee hiring, an increasingly litigious society, and confusion regarding the validity and legality of current testing models.
Police department hiring has increased over the last several years. It is not unusual for a small or mediumsized agency to receive several hundred applications for a posted job opening. Given most municipal and civil service rules and regulations, the majority of these candidates will be invited to participate in the hiring process.
A good selection process will attempt to assess a candidate's job-related abilities-and physically demanding tasks are an essential part of being an officer. Physical ability or fitness must be measured in order to ensure that newly hired employees can handle the job demands. The question then becomes, what is the best way to make this assessment?
Physical Testing Models
Physical testing models for public safety positions fall into two types. The first-generally called a fitness test-is usually based on the Cooper standards. This test measures a person's level of fitness through sit-ups, mile-and-a-half runs, bench press repetitions, etc. While they initially used different absolute cutoff scores on these components for men and women of various age groups, the 1991 Civil Rights Act prohibiting race and sex norming of test scores produced a consensus among industrial psychologists, assessment specialists and human resource professionals that the separate norms were illegal.
The tide has since turned again, however. Case law has now shown that different absolute cutoff scores on fitness tests can be defended because they are actually applied at the same percentiles for men, women, and different age groups. In other words, while they have different cutoff scores, they represent the same level of general fitness. [For complete details on these cases, see Powell v. Reno, C.A. No. 96-2743 (NHJ) (D.D.C.) (1997) and Peanick V. Reno, No. 95-2594(1 8h Cir.) (1996).]
The second model is known as job-simulation "physical ability testing." Candidates perform a series of linked exercises that simulate an officer's job (such as climbing a fence, dry-firing a weapon, and dragging a dummy) in order to measure their ability to perform essential job tasks. The same score (i.e., the ability to perform these tasks in a reasonable period of time) is required of all candidates, regardless of sex or age. Hence, separate norms are not permissible.
Which model is better? The answer depends on the priorities of the particular agency. The fitness model has the obvious advantage of equal passing rates for men and women. This is a tremendous advantage when one considers the need to increase female representation in public safety positions. In addition, a fitness-based program may be seen as quite desirable by union officials and incumbent employees when an agency is in the process of implementing an on-going (e.g., yearly) fitness assessment because it allows for score adjustments based on age.
An agency choosing to implement a fitness model of physical testing need go no farther than to obtain the national non-native (e.g., Cooper) data for traditional fitness exercises and begin testing. Because there will not be adverse impact against any protected class of individuals, the agency need not worry about legal challenges based on sex or age discrimination.
Despite these advantages, the validity of the "fitness" method itself may be considered a drawback. It is a logical argument to assert that people who are more fit are more likely to successfully perform physically demanding tasks.
A recent study by the Birmingham Police Department provided evidence of the validity of the "fitness" components of the Alabama POST physical ability test for predicting the ability to perform (simulated) job tasks. …