By Mary Jane Smetanka
In Minnesota, the only physical fitness test many police officers ever have to pass is the one they take in school while working on their law enforcement degree.
That’s true even if they spend decades on the job, working in a stressful and sometimes dangerous profession where on any given day, hours of sitting may be followed by bursts of intense physical activity.
“Police officer duties can be very difficult. You have to be in shape because you can go from zero to 60 in no time,” says Laura Kushner, League of Minnesota Cities (LMC) human resources director.
The need for testing
Many Minnesota police departments do no in-house physical skills testing of candidates because it is fraught with legal issues, including concerns about whether the exams discriminate against women and the disabled and whether they actually gauge real-life job skills. Because of disability rights laws, departments can’t even take a candidate’s pulse or blood pressure after a test unless they’ve already made a conditional job offer.
Those concerns, along with the lack of a widely accepted national test, mean that many police departments have tried to play it safe by avoiding the issue. An LMC survey of Minnesota police departments shows that among those that responded, 40% were doing no in-house testing, relying instead on the physical agility and strength testing done at police training institutions. Twenty-nine percent had their own test, 23% did outside testing, and the rest did something else.
“The issue is confusing and difficult and, with no national standards, is especially hard for smaller and medium-sized cities,” says Jana O’Leary Sullivan, an LMC attorney.
The testing conundrum
State law is vague on the testing issue. It requires that applicants for law enforcement jobs pass a job-related strength and agility exam that demonstrates they have the physical skills to do the job, but does not specify when that test should be given. Medical and psychological exams are required after a job offer has been made.
For a long time, police departments relied on a testing system from Texas that included measures like a long run, pushups, situps, and weight lifting. As more women joined departments and questions were raised about how applicable the skills in the test were to actual police work, those standards became less popular. And in Minnesota, where 10 schools offer skills training for those seeking law enforcement degrees, there has never been a common standard for those tests.
“The college skills courses vary widely,” Kushner says. “Some are all fitness, some have wellness aspects, and some have use-of-force training. It isn’t consistent, so you don’t really know what you’re getting. It’s better if a city does its own [testing].”
That isn’t easy, Sullivan says. “Even larger organizations, like the FBI and the military, have struggled with developing uniform standards. You want the best test to measure the best skills, but you don’t want a test that washes out good candidates, especially those from underrepresented groups such as women, and especially if there is a better alternative test. Cities have to be careful about disparate impact on different groups.”
While Minnesota hasn’t had a major lawsuit over skills tests, other states have. “These things are trickier than you might think,” Kushner says. “It’s hard to argue that situps are directly linked to doing the job.”
LMC Public Safety Project Coordinator Tracy Stille, a former police officer, has seen the resulting confusion in visits with departments around the state.
“There was a vast difference in the type of physical agility programs they used,” he says. “Some departments were making up their own tests or copying tests from other departments, and some even had different standards based on gender and age, when testing is supposed to be nondiscriminatory.”
Some departments continue to use the Texas standards. Others have tried to create tests that replicate job duties, with things like dummy drags and simulated arrests.
New test available
Working with experts in the field, the League has developed a physical fitness test for police that is now available for cities to use. Stille and other LMC officials believe it is fair, reasonably priced, and measures skills that police use on the job. The test includes a quarter-mile treadmill run, a dummy drag and wrestle, stair climbing with a medical bag, CPR, and a wall climb/obstacle scale. (Learn more about the test at www.lmc.org/police-fitness-test.)
The cost to departments to use the test is low — only $185 per officer. That should make it affordable, even for small cities, and could save money for others that have been hiring outside firms to create tests, Stille says. More importantly, he believes a test that really measures on-the-job skills will improve policing.
“Physical fitness is related to other issues, including workers’ compensation and liability,” he says. “Police who are fit have fewer injuries and recover quicker. And they are much less likely to resort to force with a taser or firearm if they can physically subdue a suspect.”
Legal concerns over testing have also affected how departments deal with police officers who are returning to work after injury or cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Among cities insured by the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust, PTSD cases have risen to the top of workers’ compensation claims.
“We are not trying to eliminate PTSD diagnoses, but we know having officers that are physically fit has a direct effect on mental health,” Stille says. The new, validated test should add a consistent measure to gauge whether officers who have been on leave for medical reasons are ready to return to work.
Police agree testing is needed
In Alexandria, Police Chief Scott Kent says that as issues around the tests became evident, his department stopped in-house skills testing of officers.
“For the last six or seven years, we have resigned ourselves [to not testing] because of lawsuits and knowing we don’t have a test that can really stand up to review,” Kent says. “So, if they’d gone through the Minnesota process and had schooling and had a test [in college], we didn’t pursue that any further.”
He adds, “Nobody has really known what the right answer is. I’ve always found that a disservice to us as a profession when we require a pre-service test and that’s as fit as you ever need to be.”
After 24 years in law enforcement, he says, “I’ve worked with a lot of unhealthy people. This is a culture where 25 years ago most cops smoked, chewed, and drank heavily. Now people look less favorably on that. We need to make sure people are mentally and physically fit for the job.”
But a test must measure the skills that are needed to do the job, he says. “Doing 50 situps does not help me handcuff anyone.”
Brooklyn Park Deputy Police Chief Todd Milburn shares Kent’s concerns. Like Kent, he is a veteran officer who hasn’t taken another physical test since he took one 25 years ago in school.
“A lot of departments are concerned about liability and how to develop a test that is fair and equitable to all,” he says.
Both Milburn and Kent were on the steering committee that helped develop the League’s new police fitness test. They both agree it’s a good test and are looking forward to using it in their departments.
Milburn believes a good pre-employment skills test is more important than ever. “The job has always been tough, but now, with everything that’s going on, we need the fittest officers coming in the door and we need to know who is ready to go with this kind of work. The job is only getting harder.”
Milburn and Kent agree that generally, today’s police officers are more interested in maintaining their health than previous generations were. Brooklyn Park allows officers to work out while on duty, has started a wellness committee, and has competitions to try to motivate officers to make fitness a priority.
“Younger officers are more interested in staying fit; it’s part of their culture,” Milburn says. “People understand that they need to be in the gym, eat right, and stay physically and mentally fit.”
Kent says his current officers are “the most health-conscious group of men and women I’ve ever worked with.” With gyms closed because of COVID-19, they approached him and asked if the department could buy some exercise equipment to put in the station.
“I’d like to see a pre-service exam and get our staff to embrace those standards,” he says. “If we have a validated test, they will buy in.”
Aiding in wellness
Kushner believes that if the new test is embraced by both police departments and their officers, it will not only improve policing but be a service to individuals who are doing some of the toughest work in Minnesota.
“I really believe in wellness, and this is one piece I wanted to solve for many years. I’m so happy we’re finally getting there,” Kushner says. “I can’t imagine doing the job police do day after day with physical and mental health issues. It’s part of our duty as employers to help them take care of themselves.”
Mary Jane Smetanka is a freelance writer.