My Turn: For police officers, physical fitness is the best weapon
Some of the 38 applicants who showed up to take the New Hampshire state police exam at NHTI on Saturday, December 6, wait outside the weight gym. The first of many physical tasks they were required to pass was a bench press, in which they had to lift a minimum of 87% of their body weight. Tim O'Shea, a columnist for the Monitor, was surprised when he passed this portion of the exam. (Concord Monitor photo/Veronica Wilson) Saturday, December 6, 2008. Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »
The recent news story about the police applicant who is filing suit over police fitness standards in New Hampshire caused me to reflect upon my agency and the use of the Cooper Fitness Standards (“Officer: State discriminated,” Monitor front page, Nov. 29). The courts will ultimately decide on the legitimacy of their use. I do, however, wish to share my perspective on our department’s use of the standards and the success we have had in hiring the very best men and women for our agency.
The Concord Police Department has an allocation of 84 sworn police officers. We have five vacancies and are aggressively recruiting to fill the remaining positions. Our staff is comprised of both men and women whose ages encompass a wide spectrum. We are the beneficiaries of sound recruiting practices which yields well-qualified candidates. Some are of the typical post-college age and others are of an age that reflects a “later in life” career change.
If you ask the head of any police agency in the state, you will likely be told it is difficult to find qualified candidates who are of sound character and who are physically and mentally prepared to perform the tasks of police work. Recruiting qualified applicants is a constant challenge, one that demands steadfast vigilance.
The temptation to ease standards increases when the application pool becomes shallow. We resist this temptation. Citizens demand the very best, and so do police administrators.
As I close in on completing my third decade with the Concord Police Department, I have seen a transformation of the overall fitness of our staff. Fitness is essential to maintaining a productive and effective police career.
New police hires typically begin their career by performing patrol functions which involves working varied shifts, often in difficult climate conditions, with sporadic meal regimens and other unpredictable variables. In other words, the job can be tough on the body.
Our department, like all New Hampshire police agencies, uses the Cooper Aerobics Institute Standards. Entry-level applicants must be able to pass, at very least, the 35th percentile. The Cooper Standards tests the relative fitness of an individual based on age and gender. In other words, standards vary between men and women and between age groups.
For instance, a man between the ages of 18 and 29 must complete the 1½-mile run in 12 minutes and 53 seconds. A female applicant in the same age category must complete the run in 15 minutes and 14 seconds.
The time increases with the next age group.
For applicants between 30 and 39, men must complete the run in 13:24, and women must complete it in 15:58. The Concord Police Department conducted three recruitment processes in the past
12 months. Of the 152 applicants screened in the fitness phase, 24 failed to meet the standard.
One may argue that using different standards for age and gender is discriminatory and unfairly dismisses otherwise qualified applicants.
Again, the courts will ultimately decide this issue. However, men are different from women. Physical strength and endurance varies between age groups, with the younger crowd having the advantage. I concede there are exceptions out there. To me, the relative fitness of the individual, taking age and gender into consideration, allows police agencies the best opportunity to hire the most qualified candidate by casting the widest net possible. It provides a clear measure of relative fitness for that particular individual.
If the alternative test is “one standard for all,” then which standard do we use and at what age point do we assess fitness?
Many of our applicants far exceed the minimum standard of the 35th percentile. They are told well in advance of the test what the requirements are, including the standard for graduating the police academy (50th percentile).
It is posted on our website and can be easily accessed at the New Hampshire Police Standards and Training Council website. Police applicants have ample time to prepare for achieving this minimum standard, a standard that is below the median for entry level.
Stated bluntly, we are asking them to achieve an entry level standard that is below average and graduate the academy with at least an average fitness standard.
The job of police officer is a demanding one. Yes, the demands are the same for everybody, regardless of gender or age.
I want to continue to recruit and hire the best men and women possible, whose fitness level will sustain them for a demanding police career.
Whatever the fitness standard ends up being, physical fitness is our best weapon in the arsenal of police tools. Without it, careers are shortened, or at best, made very difficult.
(John Duval is the Concord police chief.)