Suburban Police Departments Start to Take Fitness Seriously

Article excerpt

Byline: Jack Komperda Daily Herald Staff Writer

At a training session for suburban police officers this week, bagels and muffins were spread out on a refreshments table among containers of cream cheese and the beverage of choice for many cops - coffee.

But there wasn't a doughnut in sight during what was anything but a typical law enforcement training subject.

Officers from a dozen suburban police stations gathered at Lake Zurich High School this week to learn how to become physical fitness trainers for their respective departments.

During the three-day seminar, the officers not only learned workout routines and training strategies, but also discussed nutrition and legal issues surrounding the establishment of fitness standards in law enforcement agencies.

"It's all new," Pablo Castro, an officer from the Carol Stream Police Department, said of the unorthodox session.

The program is part of an ambitious initiative by the Intergovernmental Risk Management Agency - a group that manages liability claims for many suburban towns - to implement fitness testing standards at their member departments within three years.

IRMA officials, who stress the program will remain voluntary, tout the health benefits and increased morale of such programs, as well as reductions in absenteeism and costly worker's compensation claims.

"When you critically examine the job of a police officer, a great deal of time is spent in administrative tasks," said Patrick Finlon, deputy police chief in Lake Zurich. "But when he's involved in a physical task, it's critical."

Pursuing a suspect on foot or disabling a criminal can quickly take on life-or-death consequences not just for the officer, but for the public the officer is protecting. And the risk increases for physically unhealthy officers.

But there are many obstacles to instituting such police fitness programs. Unions are sometimes resistant and change can be difficult in a law enforcement culture that arguably hasn't historically promoted healthy living.

Then there can be numerous legal hurdles.

"Unfortunately, in this day of litigation, what seems like a great thing turns complicated," said David Wickster, executive director of the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police Labor Council, which negotiates union contracts on behalf of more than 450 police departments.

At issue are several questions that play into contract negotiations, such as:

- Does training become a work-related activity that officers should be paid for?

- How do departments determine whether a training-related injury gets covered by workman's compensation?

- How do departments treat officers who don't meet physical standards?

How those questions are answered would be negotiated between a community and its police union. Wickster said his group often recommends incentives as ways of enforcing any periodic fitness testing.

Health standards rare

For most suburban officers, the only fitness test they must pass is the entrance examination to the police training academy run by the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board.

Police departments in Carol Stream and Naperville have for years discussed implementing periodic training programs.

Prospect Heights, one of the few suburban departments with mandatory physical fitness testing, gives its officers extra vacation time as an incentive to keep in shape.

"The most obvious benefit is that it helps keep our officers in shape," said Prospect Heights Police Chief Bruce Morris. …