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Physical Fitness Standards

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 training 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 short- and 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 job-related 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. The standard must predict the ability to perform the essential functions of the job at a minimum level, discriminating between those who can and cannot perform those functions.

Though the Lanning

Court did not attack the following issues, we share the strong view that they are also very important to legal defensibility of physical fitness standards. There should be continuity among applicant, academy graduation and incumbent standards. The academy graduation standard should be the same as the incumbent standard. The applicant standard can be lower than the incumbent standard based on the premise that the training during the academy will improve fitness levels.

Incumbent standards are the key to any successful program that is purportedly job related. Recruit and incumbent training programs should address the same fitness areas. A fitness program should be developed and implemented for an extended period before implementing incumbent standards. The program should include trained leadership, fitness education and supervision to assist officers in attaining the requisite levels of fitness. The Validation Study Report should provide all information necessary to document the procedures and should include statistical analyses used to develop the standards.

The next column will address the nature and type of recommended testing and standards, their adverse impact on women and people over 40, the likely and unwanted legal effects of age and gender adjustments of standards, and cut-off scores which some use to combat the aforementioned adverse impact. We will also cover relevant applications of Title VII, the ADA and the ADEA, and the programming necessary to support application of testing and standards. Until then, please remember three key thoughts.

First, lifeguards should be able to swim. Second, a required physical task does not get less demanding just because the person arriving to perform it is a woman and/or an older person. Third, it is illogical that someone would have to meet a physical fitness standard to enter a profession in which there are no physical fitness standards.

In 98 percent of American law enforcement agencies, the only time a person has to meet a physical fitness standard is when they are not a law enforcement officer. Once a person is a law enforcement officer, he or she is permanently excused from any such requirement. We should fix this.

Randy Means is a partner in Thomas & Means, a law firm specializing entirely in police operations and administration. He has served the national law enforcement community full time for more than 30 years and is the author of “The Law of Policing,” which is available at He can be reached directly at

Kevin Lowry recently retired as a chief from the Nassau County, N.Y., Police Department. He is a qualified attorney, arbitrator and hearing officer in matters of personnel and employment. Lowry has held supervisory and management positions in patrol, investigations and administration. He can be reached at

Bob Hoffman served as director of training for the Army’s Soldier Physical Fitness School and helped develop the Army’s Total Fitness Program. He has participated in physical fitness validation studies for more than 150 law enforcement agencies. He can be contacted at

Published in Law and Order, Apr 2011

Rating : 7.0

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Standards are a must

Posted on : Jul 5 at 11:47 AM By Mike

A group of us were discussing the lack of physical fitness standards just today at lunch. When I peroused the LaO mag on the desk, I came across this article. Sadly, a large number of officers in the department I work for are at a minimum completely out of shape. A relatively small number yet, a large enough number, to be completely honest are obese and disgusting to see in a police uniform. I think safety is the first and most important factor demanding our level of fitness. In second place is our appearance. Of course someone would fight with an officer who looks less than capable of defending himself or orthers...which then translates back into the safety factor. My department onced had a voluntary and a mandatory fitness program, but along with budget cuts, the mind for fitness was also cut. The effects have been quite negative. Thank you for the thought-provoking article!

Training Coordinator

Posted on : May 16 at 3:33 PM By Concerned

Good article and excellent statement ref In 98 percent... One question….. How do we fix this? We have a voluntary Wellness program because CALEA mandates it now how do you turn this into an industry standard? Last year three out of 57 of our officers tested, two achieved 80 and one 50 of the Cooper Institute’s PT standards. Truck drivers and pilots have to pass an annual physical but not peace officers.


Posted on : Apr 28 at 1:33 PM By Milton Proctor

Its only a matter of time before the courts mandate some type of fitness standards for law enforcement. It would be best if we tried to set them ourselves instead of having someone else dictate them to us.

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