Thursday, June 20, 2024

Physically fit for duty? Abilene police association asks city to shed mandatory standards

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The Abilene Police Officers Association has requested physical fitness standards become voluntary. What do other agencies do?

The Abilene Police Officers Association is pushing to shed mandatory physical fitness standards in favor of a voluntary, incentivized program for the city’s peace officers.

Across the board, numerous law enforcement agencies in Texas still require mandatory physical fitness assessments, and on the federal level, so does the Air Force for servicemembers. Other agencies have voluntary physical fitness programs for their peace officers or none at all.

It’s worth noting the recent push from the association comes about five years after the Abilene Police Department unveiled an expansive fitness facility in the new police headquarters.

The Abilene police association is floating the idea of changing to a voluntary physical fitness program while working to hammer out a new police contract with the city.

Chris Adams, president of the police association, has presented the association’s request to city officials to shift physical fitness standards to voluntary so that “no one is mandated to participate.”

This change to a voluntary physical fitness component would ensure “no one is punished” in the event of failing a physical fitness test, Adams said in a May 30 meeting with city officials.

He suggested officers receive a health physical every two years, paid for by the city, in lieu of participating in a mandatory physical fitness assessment.

In response, City Manager Robert Hanna said that his “big concern is, how do we maintain officer fitness if it’s voluntary?”

APD’s standards

According to APD Public Information Coordinator Rick Tomlin: “Regarding physical fitness standards, the Department currently incentivizes officers with time off to pass the testing process. If approved, the Department will continue encouraging physical fitness and maintain a physical fitness program with annual testing. The program will focus more on officers’ overall health and incentivize officers to participate.”

How many officers grapple with meeting the standards?

“It would be factual to say a handful of officers did not pass the physical testing requirements in 2023,” Tomlin said. “Those who fail are put on a 90-day probation, during which time they are encouraged to advance their training and then retake the test.”

All who failed passed the retake test.

According to the 2019 police association contract with the city of Abilene, “The Department will provide a mandatory fitness assessment for all sworn employees.”

Fitness assessments will be completed on a rowing machine and will consist of a 2,000-meter row.

In the event of a failing score for a sworn employee, the officer will participate in a fitness improvement plan designed by the Fitness Committee and be reassessed in three months.

A second failure will result in a continued fitness improvement plan and a mandatory reassessment in three months. A third failure may result in a modified duty assignment, as well as continued participation in a fitness plan.

This modified duty is not considered disciplinary action, according to the contract, and no sworn employee can be suspended or subjected to a fitness-for-duty evaluation as a result.

Sworn officers are exempt from testing in the event of illness, injury, disability or another qualifying life event. They then test three months after the event.

Other agencies, other rules

Sgt. Charlie Eipper of the Wichita Falls Police Department said his department tests twice per year. Eipper said it is “mandatory for everyone to take the test.”

All Wichita Falls officers test on rowing machines, similar to APD standards.

Wichita Falls is a city of about 102,000 and is approximately 150 miles northeast of Abilene. Both are midsize cities, but Abilene has a larger population of about 127,000 residents.

While Eipper noted no one can be fired for failing to pass a physical fitness test, he stressed that those tests are “so important for our job.”

“The level of stress and the nature of the job takes a toll physically and mentally,” Eipper said of the importance of staying physically fit as a police officer.

“Strength and endurance is going to play a huge part” in the job and in maintaining that balance, he said.

Being fit protects the officers in altercations, and it protects themselves and their weapons, Eipper said. Being fit makes them ready to serve and protect.

The much bigger Fort Worth Police Department also has regular physical fitness standards for recruits but tests lateral officers, as well. That department has one of the more strenuous tests, especially in the case of lateral officers.

Lateral officers who wish to transfer to Fort Worth must complete a sprint and barrier surmount in addition to a pursuit run and stair climb. They must demonstrate the physical force to restrain a 180-pound person using a power training machine and complete a trigger pull assessment.

The last event is a victim rescue where officers are required to carry an 88-pound weight around a designated course.

The Texas Department of Public Safety sets a “minimum physical fitness requirement for all applicants and trooper trainees” to pass a physical readiness test.

This assessment includes rowing, running and having a standard waist measurement of 38 inches for women and 43 inches for men.

“Recruits not passing the requirements will have their conditional job offer rescinded and will be sent home,” according to DPS.

Moving past the academy, “all Department commission personnel are required to pass two physical fitness assessments per fiscal year.”

Physical fitness mandates for other first responders

The Abilene Fire Department requires a once yearly physical agility test, AFD Fire Marshall Jeremy Williams said. New recruits will not be considered for AFD if they fail the test.

The strenuous test includes such events as a dragging a five-inch hose, using an axe to cut a hole in a building’s roof, climbing a ladder and operating a chainsaw, among others.

AFD members are required to pass this test yearly with no reward incentives.

If they fail, members are then subject to an improvement plan with “mandated physical fitness,” Williams said.

AFD does, however, offer a separate voluntary program for extra fitness. If officers qualify, they are rewarded with time off work.

Military testing

Over one-quarter of the APD department is made up of former military members who know physical fitness standards all too well.

The military’s Air Force and Army standards harken back to World War II when the Army Air Forces established its first physical fitness program, according to an Air Force article on evolving fitness standards.

Testing methods have evolved since then, and the Air Force now has a physical fitness assessment that includes activities such as pushups, sit ups and a 1.5-mile run, according to a detailed 70-page document on fitness standards.

High scorers are only required to test once yearly. Low scorers, however, must test twice per year with unsatisfactory scorers subject to testing every three months.

‘Maintain voluntary physical fitness’

Some Texas agencies, however, have moved to a voluntary system, and others simply don’t have such requirements.

Eipper said the move to voluntary assessments could be reflective of recruitment and retention within smaller police departments.

The Taylor County Sheriff’s Office is one of the agencies that does not have any physical fitness requirements for hiring new recruits.

“We are exploring a fitness program with current employees,” Sheriff Ricky Bishop said.

Larger cities such as Houston have moved to a voluntary physical fitness program as recently as 2019.

“The department, in compliance with the most current Meet and Confer Agreement, shall maintain a voluntary Physical Fitness and Agility Program to serve as an incentive for officers to improve their physical condition,” according to a general order issued Feb. 20, 2019.

Houston went so far as to state that participants in the voluntary program must take the department’s physical agility test while off duty.

A massive fitness room

The City Council initially approved $9 million in funding to renovate the old Kmart building so the APD could move from the old Law Enforcement Center in downtown Abilene. The project went on to cost an estimated $24 million to complete.

When the new facility opened in 2019, it contained a massive fitness room stocked with weights and exercise machines of all sorts, according to a previous Abilene Reporter-News story.

“The Abilene Police Department has a very robust fitness program,” then-Assistant Police Chief Doug Wrenn said then. “We’re actually leading the state in several parts of that. And so, it’s the least we can do to give our men and women who wear that uniform (this) opportunity.”

More on the requests from APOA Retirement, pay, promotions: Police association begins contract negotiations with city

Initial approval of the new APD complex City Council approves funding for police station

An in-depth look at the complex ‘Lawmart’: Abilene Police Department’s new headquarters offers opportunity to ‘start anew’

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