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Mark Rivera, Customer Retention Manager and CJIS Security Compliance Officer with Vigilant Solutions, served for sixteen years with the Maryland State Police, retiring at the rank of First Sergeant with thirteen of those years at the supervisory and command level. He holds a Master of Science Degree in Management from The Johns Hopkins University and Secret clearance through the FBI, Baltimore.

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Redefining Fit for Duty

We need to ask some tough questions about the mental and physical fitness of America's law enforcement professionals.

August 01, 2008  |  by Dave Young - Also by this author


Being in the law enforcement and corrections training field for more than 20 years and coming from both a civilian and Marine Corps background in law enforcement and corrections, I have noticed a distinct change in the students attending training programs. Many of them are out of shape both mentally and physically.

I don't mean they are stupid or mentally unstable. I mean they lack mental discipline and a winning mindset. And when I talk about physical fitness, I'm not referring to the officer who has 20 years on the force and has bad knees and a bad back and has gained too much weight. I'm talking about officers who are young with just a few years of duty or even just out of the academy who cannot maintain the physical intensity needed for advanced law enforcement training.

An officer's physical fitness is a concern not just because the officers are overweight and might develop a debilitating health condition in their later years. It's an officer survival issue. It could put an officer at a serious disadvantage when he or she faces a more physically fit bad guy who has the mindset to win.

The Winning Mindset

Even when officers are in shape, they have a tendency to dismiss the value of training. The mindset of these officers has taken a sharp curve from: "Hey, this is important and I need to know it because it can prevent me from being injured or even killed" to "Hey, this is never going to happen to me, and I don't have to be in shape because I have all of these force options and tools on my belt."

On the brochures and flyers for the courses I teach that challenge the officers both physically and mentally, I have a special note alerting the students that the training is physically demanding. But many seem to have very little idea of what "hands-on" training means.

Today's law enforcement trainees tend to have a very different mindset than those I taught back in the '90s. Back then more of my students came to the training with military experience or an athletic background. They were prepared for physically grueling training and, more importantly, the physical challenges of the job. Many of today's trainees lack even basic physical fitness.

Part of the problem is that agencies don't require officers to maintain fitness once they are on the job. Sure they have to pass the academy, but afterward they can relax, and relax some do.

To make matters worse, today because agencies are desperately trying to fill their ranks, some have lowered their fitness standards. Sure, they still give tests, but are they really tests in the sense that they screen people? Or are these agencies simply going through the motions for liability concerns?

Safety is always the main concern for any trainer when conducting training, as it should be. However, in an effort to make training safe, the officer survival focus of the past is now largely ignored. I advocate raising the bar on basic fitness for duty guidelines for agencies. If these standards are met, "safety" issues will be readily met as well. And that will save lives.

Do You Know How to Win?

Training used to be about developing the skills of a warrior: intelligence, physical strength, physical endurance, courage. I tell my students, "If you want to be a warrior you have to walk through hell." In other words, train hard and train realistically because nothing is more real than a bad guy trying to take your life.

How has the shift away from the "warrior model" changed training? Well, for example, if your protective equipment does not allow you to strike with the survival power you will need in a real life encounter, then fundamentally, you are being trained not to hit with the power you will need to save your life, which means you may never know how much power it takes to win a fight until the moment of truth. And you don't want to have to experiment during a fight for your life.

Sometimes I think that law enforcement training has been commercialized in the same way that martial arts training—where you can get a black belt in three years—has been commercialized. Yes, after completing such a program you walk away with a sense of accomplishment. But have you really mastered anything? The answer is probably not.

I have attended many instructor training programs that did not physically and mentally challenge the participants. They paid a fee; they went through the training; but they were required to exert little or no effort to pass the course and receive the certification.

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