Police departments, like all public and private employers, must hire employees who are physically fit to perform the job.

Employers establish physical fitness standards for jobs, especially those that are physically demanding, and these standards are often used in the selection process. Police officers are unique in that, for the most part, the job is rather sedentary, with a few random instances where officers are required to exert tremendous strength and endurance. For most of their shifts, police officers drive patrol cars, walk a beat, and observe what is occurring in their patrol areas. Occasionally they must chase or wrestle with a suspect. Officers must be physically prepared for these random encounters. About half of all police agencies have a physical fitness requirement upon entry (Reaves and Goldberg 2000). Generally, only the smaller departments do not have such a requirement.

Historically, police agencies equated physical fitness to size. Until the 1970s, many police departments had height and weight requirements. For example, departments required that new officers be at least 5’7″ in height and of proportionate weight. In the 1970s, the courts ruled such standards to be discriminatory because they had an adverse impact on females. For example, in Vanguard Justice Society v. Hughes (1979), the court concluded that Baltimore’s 50700 height requirement was unconstitutional since 95% of females were excluded while only 32% of the male population was deemed unqualified. The requirement violated Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which forbids discrimination based on gender. The act essentially required agencies to establish the validity of their selection procedures when discrimination occurred. Police agencies could not show that taller officers performed better, resulting in height standards being abolished.

Departments migrated from height requirements to some form of physical fitness testing. For example, the Toledo (Ohio) Police Department adopted a test that included (1) fifteen push-ups, (2) twenty-five sit-ups, (3) a six-foot standing broad jump, and (4) a twenty-five-second obstacle course. The court in Harless v. Duck (1980) ruled the examination to be in violation of the Civil Rights Act. The court noted that the test did not sample job tasks or was not related to the job. In other words, officers did not perform sit-ups and push-ups on the job. In striking down these types of tests, the courts required departments to develop tests that reflected actual job behaviors.

As the result of legal challenges and the need to hire female officers, departments began to seek procedures that screened out those who were physically unqualified but did not adversely affect female applicants. In the 1980s and early 1990s, departments began to adopt a health-based testing procedure. The procedure adopted by most departments included (1) cardiovascular capacity, usually measured by a 1.5 mile run, (2) upper-body strength, measured by push-ups or a bench press, (3) abdominal strength, measured by sit-ups, (4) body-fat composition, measured using body calipers, and (5) flexibility, measured by a bend and reach. To avoid legal challenges and to increase the passing rate for females, departments used gender and age norms based on the general population. For example, a twenty-five-year-old female’s performance on the events was compared to all other females within her age range (Gaines, Falkenberg, and Gambino 1993). This resulted in identifying healthy candidates, male and female, without having adverse impact. In United States v. Wichita Falls (1988), the court ruled that the health-based procedure did not violate the Civil Rights Act even when females were adversely affected since females were screened using female-based norms or standards.

The direction of physical fitness screening changed with the passage of the 1991 Civil Rights Act. One of the purposes of the act was to prevent employers from using self-imposed affirmative action programs. For example, many departments were using separate hiring and promotion lists for minority and white candidates in order to avoid discrimination or adverse impact problems (Gaines, Costello, and Crabtree 1989). Congress, in passing the act, reasoned that this procedure was unfair and invalid. Consequently, departments abandoned the health-based fitness testing procedures since they were based on separate male and female norms. However, the court in Peanick v. Morris (1996) ruled that health-based testing based on separate male and female norms did not violate the 1991 Civil Rights Act. The court ruled that even though different standards were used for male and female applicants, the passing point essentially identified candidates who were equivalent in terms of health.

Even though one court approved the health-based standards, most departments returned to some form of event-based physical fitness testing. Most departments were not familiar with the case, and the U. S. Department of Justice maintained that the health-based testing violated the 1991 Civil Rights Act. The event-based tests were similar to the one struck down by the court in Toledo, but the new procedures attempted to incorporate job samples, thus establishing some measure of content validity. Activities such as pushups, sit-ups, and bench presses were avoided. Instead, events such as dry firing a handgun, scaling a six-foot wall, pushing a vehicle for a distance, obstacle courses, and running up and down a flight of stairs were used; all of these events are physical activities that police officers may perform as a part of their job.

The dominant issue in physical fitness testing is the establishment of cut-off scores. That is, at what point does a candidate pass? Given that females do not possess the strength that males possess, this is a difficult chore. If the cut-off score is lowered to allow more females to pass, it will also allow larger numbers of males to pass. Thus, unlike the health-based tests, these tests almost always result in adverse impact on female applicants. The tests have withstood challenge since they are based on job samples and have some level of content validity.

Cut-off scores have been set by testing a sample of job incumbents. Here, events are identified and a sample of officers who are currently performing the job are tested. Most agencies have used one standard deviation below the mean or average as the cut-off. This means that about 34% of candidates fail the test. Problems with this procedure have occurred when a representative sample of officers have not been used. Too often departments have requested volunteers to participate in the validation process, which generally results in physically superior officers being used to establish the cut-off scores. When this occurs, larger numbers of females are rejected.

An examination of these tests shows that females have difficulty with one event—the six-foot wall climb. This event is used by a number of departments even though it is questionable whether an officer will ever scale a six-foot wall. Recognizing this problem, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department initiated a one-day training program to help prepare applicants to successfully scale the wall. Sheriff’s officials recognized that successful completion of the event required technique as well as some level of upper-body strength and reasoned that most females failed the event because they were unfamiliar with the technique or right way to approach the obstacle. The training program resulted in larger numbers of females passing the physical fitness test. Thus, departments can increase the number of females passing their fitness requirements by providing an orientation or training.

A number of departments now have some form of physical fitness programs for veteran officers. These programs have taken a variety of directions. Some have been voluntary, while others have attached incentives. A number of departments now provide officers with physical fitness training facilities. Some departments have built their own facilities, while others have paid officers’ dues to health clubs. In the latter case, officers are expected to maintain some level of fitness and to show that they have used the club’s facilities. Other departments have provided officers with time off, for example, four hours a week. These departments monitor the program by requiring officers who take the time off to meet departmentally established physical fitness standards. Other departments have developed standards and provide pay incentives to officers who meet the standards. This is similar to specialist pay, which is used by a number of departments.

The problem in implementing physical fitness standards for veteran or new officers is establishing cut-off scores. Standards for veteran officers are not difficult since they can be linked to health-based standards, and officers can be required to maintain a level that is compared to gender and age norms. The 1991 Civil Rights Act does not apply to physical fitness maintenance programs. As noted above, most agencies establish cut-off scores for entry by developing a set of events and testing veteran officers with the cut-off score set at one standard deviation from the mean. Realistically, this means that about 34% of the officers who were involved in establishing the norms failed, but in fact, they were successful police officers. The bottom line is there is no scientific method for determining cut-off scores, and they are arbitrary. The courts have accepted physical fitness tests for entry as long as they contain content validity or reflect actual job components. Departments should monitor their standards and be mindful of the numbers of male and female applicants who are rejected. They should scrutinize the pool of applicants who are rejected and ensure that they truly are not physically capable of performing the job. It must be remembered that the police selection process is a multitiered process, and as the number of applicants rejected at

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