Written by: Greg Ellifritz
Almost every police administrator recognizes the inherent benefits that a physically fit police officer can bring to an agency. Reduced absenteeism, greater productivity, fewer injuries, and a reduction in health care costs have all been correlated with a high level of physical fitness in police officers. Despite these benefits, only one in three law enforcement agencies have any type of physical fitness program (1). Common reasons cited for not having a department-wide fitness program are lack of resources, lack of expertise, and legal pitfalls. All of these obstacles can be overcome with the application of a small amount of knowledge and a little bit of dedicated effort.
Most administrators associate a fitness program with some type of mandatory testing procedure using either a job-related skills test or by evaluating an officer by using age and gender normed published fitness standards. These types of programs are generally accompanied by an incentive (financial or otherwise) for successfully passing the test, occasionally combined with progressive disciplinary action for those who fail. This type of approach is fraught with legal pitfalls. Standards must be proven to be job related and any type of testing must not be discriminatory against any member of a constitutionally -protected class such as race or sex (2). Agencies must also compensate officers for the period of time during which their fitness is being tested (3). Attendant to the disciplinary approach is a potential for officers filing contractual grievances and possibly a loss in morale…both events that an effective police chief would like to minimize.
Fortunately, there is a better way to create a physically fit workforce without the problems associated with a mandatory or punitive testing program. A voluntary fitness program will enhance fitness in a way that will cost the least amount of money and actually improve workplace morale, rather than giving the line officers another reason to complain about the administrative staff.
Design of the Program
In my experience as a personal fitness trainer I found that clients who enjoyed their exercise sessions were more likely to maintain a long-term fitness program. These clients also made the most improvements in their overall wellness. I found that if I took the approach of a drill sergeant by choosing all of the clients’ exercises, dictating workout dates and times, and testing for performance, the client did not stay committed to the program for long. Conversely, clients developed excellent long-term wellness habits if I educated them, answered questions, and set up a basic program focused around achieving goals by using exercises the client enjoyed performing. As an agency administrator, you can utilize these same methods to yield a successful result in your department.
The goal should be to urge your officers to become more physically fit through voluntary effort. Let the officers make the decision whether or not to put forth this effort. Not everyone will, but those who do will benefit greatly. Your job as chief is to provide educational opportunities combined with exercise facilities and the time to use them. This is much easier than it seems. Let’s take a look at a few simple strategies you can use to accomplish your goals.
Starting the Program
In most enterprises, collaborative efforts generally lead to the best solutions. The same is true when attempting to start a fitness program. No single person is likely to be successful in such a massive undertaking. Recruit some help. There are likely several of your staff members who have an interest in physical fitness. Identify them and sit down with them to hold a brainstorming session. They will probably have many useful suggestions about how to get started. Focus this session on developing ways to enhance the fitness of your overall department. Don’t focus on any individuals. Remember, you are not likely to reach everyone, and realistically, the people you don’t reach will probably be the people who would most benefit. With this in mind, I would suggest avoiding any punitive programs. Focus on incentives for increases in fitness. Discuss with your officers what (if any) incentives that the department can provide. The most commonly used incentives tend to be time off or a cash bonus. You might want to include a union grievance representative in this brainstorming session to identify contractual items that may need to be modified.
You can also use this meeting to identify the officers who will later be your fitness trainers. You want at least one, and preferably several officers who can provide assistance with setting up programs for officers and give fitness-oriented advice. Ideally these officers should be certified as police fitness trainers. Sam Faulkner at OPOTA offers excellent one-week training classes that teach police officers almost everything they need to know in order to conduct fitness assessments, set up exercise programs, and give fitness-related advice. Other personal training organizations teach similar programs as well. If your department can afford the time and money to send at least one officer to a school of this nature, the benefits will be tremendous. A better-designed program is more effective and less likely to bring about liability concerns.
If your agency already has a fitness facility, then you are ahead of the game. Brainstorm realistic ideas to improve it. If you do not have access to a facility, try to find one. Consider talking to the owners of any local fitness centers about allowing officers to use the facilities at no charge or a reduced rate. You may also check with area high schools or universities to see if you can use their equipment. If none of these solutions are possible, do you have an officer who has fitness equipment at his or her house? Will they allow other officers to use that equipment (with reasonable time restrictions, of course) in exchange for some extra time off or the donation of some department-purchased equipment to their gym? Think creatively to accomplish workable solutions.
After you set your officers up with programs and provide a place for them to work out, you may consider giving them time to train. Currently, my department offers all officers the chance to work out for one-hour time periods up to three times per week while on duty. This is a tremendously successful program. Approximately 60% of our officers regularly use this benefit, without adversely affecting calls for service. This is a very effective way to increase your officers’ fitness levels. It only requires a little collaboration with your officers to get it done. If you construct clear guidelines (possibly contractual language) about when officers can work out and what they can do, calls for service will not be neglected. Our department has had this type fitness program in place for over 18 years without experiencing any problems.
What if your agency cannot utilize any of the above-listed suggestions? What if you are already implementing these suggestions and are looking for more? Below is a chart describing some other proactive steps that agency administrators should consider.
PROVIDE REGULAR PHYSICAL EXAMS FOR OFFICERS
PROVIDE DAYS OFF OR EXTRA PAY IF SICK LEAVE IS NOT USED
AWARD EXTRA TIME OFF AS A FITNESS INCENTIVE
PROVIDE HEALTH CLUB MEMBERSHIPS
ALLOW OFFICERS TO USE KITCHEN FACILITIES TO PREPARE HEALTHY MEALS ON DUTY
ENCOURAGE OFFICERS TO PARTICIPATE IN COMPETITIONS LIKE THE POLICE OLYMPICS OR “BATTLE OF THE BADGES” AND PAY THEM FOR DOING SO
PROVIDE ON-DUTY FITNESS TRAINING
PROVIDE MORE FOOT OR BICYCLE PATROL OPPORTUNITIES
BRING IN DIETICIANS TO PROVIDE NUTRITION TRAINING
ALLOW OFFICERS TO LIFT WEIGHTS OR RUN ON DUTY
ALLOW OFFICERS TO USE UNIFORM REIMBURSEMENT ACCOUNTS TO PURCHASE WORKOUT CLOTHING
NEGOTIATE CITY DISCOUNTS FOR OFFICERS WANTING TO PURCHASE FITNESS EQUIPMENT WITH PERSONAL FUNDS
As you can see, fitness plans for your department can take many forms. It is up to you to decide which options will work best for your own agency. Whatever option you choose, you will reap the benefits of a healthier workforce and increased morale among your officers. How can you lose?
- Collingwood, Hoffman, and Sammann, FitForce Coordinator Guide, 1998. p24.
- Brooks, Michael E. “Law Enforcement Physical Fitness Standards and Title VII”, FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, May 2001.
- Grossi and Konrad, “Physical Fitness, Part Three, ‘Chief Are You Liable’”, Police Marksman, July/August 1995.
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