Physical Fitness Standards

By Means, Randy; Lowry, Kevin et al. | Law & Order, April 2011 | Go to article overview

Physical Fitness Standards


Means, Randy, Lowry, Kevin, Hoffman, Bob, Law & Order


Do your officers meet the physical requirements for your department?

Law enforcement has been described as hours of mind-numbing boredom interrupted by moments of sheer terror. The physical demands of the job may be infrequent, but when an officer is in a situation that requires some physical readiness, the inability to perform can have disastrous consequences for the public, the individual officer, his work partner and the agency itself. Attaining and maintaining needed levels of fitness does not require endless hours of running and weight lifting and can be achieved in as few as three hours of framing per week. But what are the necessary levels of fitness?

There is general consensus that law enforcement officers should maintain some level of physical fitness to meet the infrequent but occasionally critical demands of their job. This is where agreement ends, and there is great controversy regarding the remaining issues. How should fitness be assessed? Who should be assessed? What are appropriate fitness standards? What type of programming, if any, is necessary to support the application of standards?

The purpose of this article is to discuss these concerns and provide guidance for validating legally defensible physical fitness standards but, first, a point on terminology: There is wide use in the law enforcement profession of the term "mandatory standard." Because a "standard" is something that one would have to meet, we find the term "mandatory standards" to be redundant. So for this article, the term "standard" implies a requirement.

Physical Tasks and Abilities

Following is a list of physical activities that are reasonably viewed as part of police work, according to dozens of scientific studies, including focused job task analyses: walking and running short and long distances, going up and down stairs, walking on uneven terrain, jumping over obstacles, vaulting over obstacles, climbing fences, dodging objects, maneuvering around obstacles, crawling under or through obstacles, dragging objects and victims, extracting victims, pushing heavy objects such as cars, light to heavy lifting and carrying, bending and reaching, using restraining devices, using hands and feet in self-defense, and shortand long-term use of force.

The data obtained from these physical fitness standard validation studies indicate that certain physical fitness areas are the underlying and predictive factors or physical abilities that determine a law enforcement officer's capabilities to perform the essential physical tasks listed. Those factors are aerobic power, anaerobic power, upper body absolute strength, muscular endurance of the upper body and abdomen, explosive leg power and agility.

The implications of these findings are straightforward. We should test for these areas to ensure applicants, academy recruits and incumbents have the physical abilities to perform the essential physical tasks of the job. We should develop jobrelated standards for performance in these areas for applicants, academy recruit graduation and incumbent officers. We should provide training programs that ensure that law enforcement recruits and incumbents have the skills and knowledge to maintain personal physical conditioning programs throughout their career.

Legal Issues

A 1999 decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, Lanning v. Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority (SEPTA), clarified the requirements for legal validation of law enforcement physical fitness standards, establishing standards that are so job-related as to constitute a business necessity, the basis of legal defensibility.

Expert opinion is not enough - data must support all standards. The data must demonstrate a correlation between the fitness test and job criterion performance. However, you cannot apply a "more is better" approach.

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