Few departments require police officers to pass yearly fitness test

 
 
Updated 10/14/2017 7:33 PM
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  • Elgin police Officer Heather Robinson completes a 1.5-mile run during a recent voluntary annual fitness test. Keeping time are Sgt. Jim Lalley, center, and Officer Dave Zierk.

      Elgin police Officer Heather Robinson completes a 1.5-mile run during a recent voluntary annual fitness test. Keeping time are Sgt. Jim Lalley, center, and Officer Dave Zierk. Patrick Kunzer | Staff Photographer

Law enforcement officers have to pass a fitness test to graduate from the police academy. But once hired, few departments require them to continue demonstrating physical fitness.

Exceptions include Barrington, Carpentersville and the Illinois State Police, whose officers must take a yearly fitness test called Peace Officer Wellness Evaluation Report, the same required at the academy.

A growing number of departments, including Elgin, Mount Prospect, Lisle and the Lake County sheriff's office, offer voluntary fitness tests.

In all cases, officers who pass the test get a reward -- money, time off or both. And the benefits are numerous, law enforcement officials said.

'A huge benefit'

Elgin police Sgt. Jim Lalley gives time updates to officers who took a recent voluntary fitness test.
  Elgin police Sgt. Jim Lalley gives time updates to officers who took a recent voluntary fitness test. - Patrick Kunzer | Staff Photographer

Staying in shape helps officers do their jobs effectively, enhancing public safety, Barrington Police Chief David Dorn said.

"It's a component in our jobs that can be added ... to save your life if you're in a struggle with somebody, or if you're running and chasing them," Dorn said. "There is a benefit to being in good shape if that stuff happens."

Fit officers are less likely to get injured or suffer from chronic ailments, leading departments to save money on sick leave and medical insurance costs, said Master Sgt. Matt Boerwinkle, chief public information officer for the state police.

"That's a huge benefit to the taxpayers and the citizens," Boerwinkle said. "Also, that keeps an officer working, so it's one more officer to help keep the public safe."

The POWER test "is not an easy test to pass," Dorn said.

It consists of a "sit and reach" exercise, situps, bench presses and a 1.5-mile run, with different requirements based on age, gender and weight. Barrington allows running on a treadmill while state police allows a 3-mile walk.

Barrington officers get $400 if they pass the test. They get a one-day suspension if they fail twice, and a two-day suspension if they fail a third time. That's less punitive than in the past, when officers faced termination for repeated failures, Dorn said. The last time someone failed was in 2010, and that officer passed the retest.

State troopers who fail the test can retake it, and if they fail again, they can be placed on restricted duty, Boerwinkle said. Last year, less than 1 percent of troopers failed the test, and nobody failed it twice.

In Carpentersville, union contracts don't provide for discipline for officers who fail the test repeatedly, but call for possible suspension for sergeants who fail three times, said Officer Victor Lizotte, the department's union representative. Officers hired after May 1, 2011, must take the POWER test once a year, while others can take it voluntarily.

"It is a professional way to keep our officers accountable for their physical well-being, while also keeping them in a healthy physically fit condition to safely handle the tasks of a police officer's job," Police Chief Michael Kilbourne said.

When the test was all-voluntary, officers weren't exactly embracing it, Lizotte said.

"There wasn't a lot of people taking advantage of it. Some people know they can pass it because they stay in shape. Some don't care. Some people are against it, because they are not going to pass it ... so they don't think it's a worthwhile project or program."

Lead by example

Sgt. Robert Ptak does a bench press during the Elgin Police Department's annual voluntary fitness test. Sgt. Jim Lalley supervised.
  Sgt. Robert Ptak does a bench press during the Elgin Police Department's annual voluntary fitness test. Sgt. Jim Lalley supervised. - Elena Ferrarin | Staff Photographer

Law enforcement agencies have policies addressing fitness for duty, and adding specific requirements -- like yearly tests -- is among topics that require discussion during collective bargaining, said Rich Bruno, vice president of the Illinois Council of Police.

What makes a real difference, Bruno said, is for top brass to promote fitness -- and lead by example.

"It's a culture," he said. "If you have a chief that is himself into physical fitness, that's what they are going to have in their stations -- a nice workout room. If you see your co-workers in there using the facilities working out, you are more apt to take that lead."

Health is highly valued in Elgin, whose officers get $400 and a day off for passing the POWER test, Cmdr. Colin Fleury said.

Fit officers are less likely to require help during physical confrontations, and less likely to get exhausted to the point of having to use a higher level of force -- such as reaching for a gun -- when in danger, Fleury said.

"You use the exact amount of force necessary to get the job done, and you don't have to worry about gassing out or having a heart attack," he said.

Elgin police Officer Heather Farrell, left, spots Officer Heather Robinson on situps. Next to them is Officer Randy Fries spotting Sgt. Robert Ptak.
  Elgin police Officer Heather Farrell, left, spots Officer Heather Robinson on situps. Next to them is Officer Randy Fries spotting Sgt. Robert Ptak. - Elena Ferrarin | Staff Photographer

Mount Prospect rewards officers with four hours off for taking a fitness test, and with four more hours if they pass it, officials said. Lisle offers its own form of voluntary fitness evaluation, an exercise that lasts less than two minutes and mimics what officers can encounter on the job, Deputy Chief Ron Wilke said.

It includes hurdling a fence, running across a parking lot, going up stairs and dragging a dummy representing an injured person, he said. Those who complete it get $300.

"It's not the same standard as the POWER test, but it's still a test," Wilke said.

Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran said he'd like to make the POWER test mandatory, but union officials have not been receptive in preliminary discussions over the years. Deputies get $300 for voluntarily passing it and completing a health assessment including dental and vision.

'I'm cognizant of the fact that we all have different genetic formulas," Curran said. "Not everybody is going to look like 'RoboCop.' That's not the goal."

Buffalo Grove has considered creating a fitness program for about two years, but figuring out how to reward officers hasn't been easy, officer Meghan Hansen said. Any program would be voluntary.

"At this time, we are not looking to order anyone into any physical fitness standards," she said.

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