Hiring Standards: Ensuring Fitness for Duty

By Schofield, Daniel L. | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, November 1993 | Go to article overview

Hiring Standards: Ensuring Fitness for Duty


Schofield, Daniel L., The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin


Constitutional and statutory principles impact on the hiring standards established by law enforcement agencies. Courts recognize the need for hiring standards that effectively ensure officers possess the physical, educational, emotional, and integrity qualifications to handle the challenges and stresses inherent in law enforcement employment.

This article specifically discusses the legal defensibility of the following hiring standards: 1) Physical fitness testing; 2) educational requirements; 3) psychological testing; 4) polygraph examinations; and 5) criminal history assessments. The general conclusion reached is that law enforcement administrators have considerable managerial prerogatives under State and Federal law to implement hiring standards and procedures to ensure officers are competent and fit for duty.

Physical Fitness Testing

The recent passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act(1) (ADA) and the Civil Rights Act of 1991(2) (CRA of 1991) makes it imperative that law enforcement agencies carefully identify the essential functions of police work and develop physical fitness standards and tests based on those functions. Under the ADA, employers may not refuse to hire or discharge a qualified individual with a disability because of that disability, unless that person, with or without a reasonable accommodation, is unable to perform the essential functions of the job.(3)

The CRA of 1991 prohibits employers from adjusting (or "norming") test scores for employment-related tests based on race, color, sex, religion, or national origin.(4) This provision may render illegal many currently used physical fitness programs and tests with different standards or passing scores for men and women.(5)

Neither of these statutes requires law enforcement agencies to hire or retain persons who are physically unable to perform the job. They do, however, raise many difficult questions regarding the legal defensibility of physical fitness tests for law enforcement employment.

Accordingly, in March 1993, the FBI Academy hosted a working conference of personnel specialists, physical testing experts, and attorneys for the purpose of recommending legally defensible and operationally effective physical standards for law enforcement. A comprehensive report sets forth the findings and conclusions of this conference.(6)

The report concludes that Federal statutory requirements can be met by establishing physical standards that are job-related and consistent with business necessity and that the following simulative, content-based task test is a legally defensible fitness standard for law enforcement:

1) The person taking the test must complete a 1/4-mile course consisting of a series of 20- to 40-yard runs/sprints interspersed with the events described below.

2) The course includes a 5- to 6-foot wall climb, a 4-foot horizontal jump (may be done while running), a stair climb (six steps up, six steps down), the drag of a 160- to 170-pound dummy for 50 feet, and another run/sprint in a different direction. No specific order or frequency of events was established, but all events should appear at least once.

3) At the conclusion of the course, the applicant must dry fire the service weapon five times with both strong and weak hands.

The report also suggests that an additional 1.5-mile run may be legally defensible as a measure of extended endurance in departments that can demonstrate that such extended endurance is a needed physical ability for successful performance of an essential function.

The report recommends that the passing time for completing the test be determined by each agency, based on the levels of performance required of its employees. The passing times should not be adjusted for age or gender.

Because all physical abilities needed to perform law enforcement duties are not tested in this recommended task test, departments may choose to test such areas as vision, hearing, manual dexterity, flexibility, reflexes, and weight/body composition separately. …

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