Motivating Officers to Stay Fit

Officer fitness needs to be a priority, or at the very least one of the priorities, for law enforcement agencies. The rigors of the law enforcement profession place an unusual degree of mental, physical, and psychological demands on officers. Maintaining officer health has to be a budget priority, even if the administrators who manage agency budgets have to get creative to find the funds.

Photo: Jeff LinePhoto: Jeff Line

Every law enforcement administrator wishes that he or she had an unlimited budget. But nobody does. Even the meager budgets that most agencies operate under these days are being squeezed, which results in fewer dollars for training and even less money for maintaining officer fitness, something that's thought of as a "luxury."

But officer fitness should not be looked upon as a luxury by even the most cash-strapped agencies. It is an essential element in officer and agency well-being.

Since the beginning of this year, at least 10 American law enforcement officers have died of apparent heart attacks. When such tragedies occur, the officer's family and friends suffer and grieve, and the agency where that officer worked becomes less effective, as it loses experience and capabilities.

For these and for so many other reasons, officer fitness needs to be a priority, or at the very least one of the priorities, for law enforcement agencies. The rigors of the law enforcement profession place an unusual degree of mental, physical, and psychological demands on officers. Maintaining officer health has to be a budget priority, even if the administrators who manage agency budgets have to get creative to find the funds.

Far too often budgeters eliminate an agency fitness program without much thought. One of the most common excuses for killing ongoing officer fitness programs or refusing to implement new ones is the argument that fitness is the individual officer's responsibility. The reason this argument is so effective is that it is at least partially true. Officers are responsible for their individual health and fitness. But, if possible, agencies need to incentivize officer fitness. Officer fitness is as essential to officer capabilities and performance as vehicles, weapons, communications equipment, and body armor. And no agency requires officers to provide all these essential tools for the job.

Libraries of books and articles have been written and published on the benefits of physical fitness and there's not enough room here to examine them in detail, but here are some of the basics. People who exercise regularly and eat a proper diet have been proven to have lower cholesterol, better bone and joint density, greater flexibility, and a lower incidence of diabetes and heart disease. In addition to these physiological benefits of fitness, regular exercise also offers mental and emotional benefits, including more restful sleep, improved alertness, and better decision making.

Now when we take some of these benefits of fitness and apply them to actual law enforcement duties, it's easy to see how important they are to the officer, the agency, and the community served by the officer and the agency. And we should never forget that officer fitness can be critical during violent confrontations. Even the appearance of fitness can be important on the street. The squared away, in-shape officer's appearance may deter a suspect's attack, while an out-of-shape officer's appearance may invite an attack.

Setting a Standard

Before an agency can establish an officer fitness program, it needs to determine a standard for fitness. This standard has to take into consideration age and gender differences among officers. One fitness standard that has proven to be fair to a wide variety of people is the Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT). The APFT is a tried-and-true approach to measuring fitness that is scored according to a person's gender and age. By using the APFT, an agency can adopt a standard that has had large sums of money and time put into its development and that has been challenged repeatedly in the courts and has been upheld as fair.

The APFT includes three basic exercises: push-ups, sit-ups, and a two-mile run. That's another plus for using this Army standard as the basis for measuring officer fitness; law enforcement agencies need a standard that is relatively simple and can be easily implemented. But the APFT is not only simple, it's comprehensive. The three exercises tested in the APFT test yield a fair assessment of an individual's aerobic fitness, lower body strength, core strength, and upper body strength. Of course an agency can add or take away from the APFT as needed or desired. But administrators need to be aware that doing so means drifting away from a well-researched methodology of testing.

An agency can easily draft a policy for establishing a fitness program using the APFT. There are Websites that have the instructions and scoring standards for the fitness test. All an administrator has to do is cut and paste information from one of the sites, and put a department's policy endorsement on the document. Once this is done, the agency has a standard that is not subjective and is based on the "real world" needs of law enforcement officers.

Money Motivates

Once an agency has a fitness standard, the next step in promoting officer fitness is to find a way to incentivize officers to participate. One proven incentive is a monetary reward for achieving the standard. But before we can discuss this aspect of a fitness program in detail, we need to look more thoroughly at the language needed in an officer fitness policy.

There are a number of core ideas that an agency should incorporate into its fitness policy.

  • The physical fitness incentive pay program is voluntary.
  • Officers planning to enroll in the program will notify the administration prior to the end of the calendar (budget) year.
  • Testing for the program will be conducted in May and October of the following year.
  • The average score from both testing dates will designate what each individual officer is awarded.
  • The money awarded will be based on the allotted maximum amount budgeted for each individual participating officer.

Scoring and Paying

Scoring each officer's fitness and paying awards is not complicated. Let's say an officer tests in May and achieves scores of 60, 70, and 80, for an average of 70. Then the same officer tests in October with scores of 70, 80, and 90 with the average being 80 points. The spring average score of 70 with the fall average score of 80 will give the officer a 75%. If the incentive pay allotted for each officer is $1,000 then that individual officer is awarded $750.

Awarding the money may be done in differing ways. An agency can look at the payment as an "award," whereas the officer is paid immediately, like a Christmas bonus check. The agency could also set up the payment as a qualified pay incentive, where the $750 is spread out over the next budgeted year and into each pay period.

If the payment is spread out over the next budgeted year, it could be figured into an officer's salary and into the officer's hourly rate. This payment method increases the officer's overtime rate so it's a win/win for that officer. This method may also assist the agency's administrators, helping them determine their budget for the next year. Another plus to this method from the agency perspective is that it may save money. If officers leave the agency during the following year, the agency only has to pay the money owed up to the date the officer leaves.

Another way to award the monies is a pooled award. With this method, all of the participating officers are pooled together and then the awarded percentage is based on the total amount that the department has budgeted for the program. Here's how that could work. Let's say Officer A has a 71%, Officer B has a 45%, and Officer C has a 91% average score for the year. Now let's say we have a fitness program incentive pay budget for the department that is $750. We then can figure the awards as 71 + 45 + 91 = 207. The 207 is the total value that is applied to the $750. Officer A's 71% score is now converted to an award of 36.23% of the $750 pool (71/207 = 34.29%). Officer A now gets awarded $257.17. Officer B will be awarded 21.73% (45/207) of the $750, which is $163.04. And Officer C's share for a 91% score (91/207) is $329.71. This method allows officers to get every penny out of the program that they can and the administration does not have to worry about money carryover.

With a creative budget that has a reward incentive figured in, the benefits to the department, officer, and public are only limited by the agency administrators' imaginations. But where is the money for such a program going to come from?

Insurance Savings

One source may be from the agency's reduced health care coverage expenses. Every law enforcement agency administrator knows that health care costs increase every year. Many factors contribute to this yearly inflation. But agencies should not be their own worst enemies by contributing to the problem and perpetuating poor health among their officers by failing to incentivize fitness.

A portion of an agency's health care premium can be contributed to unhealthy or even just apathetic employee lifestyles. Plus, a notable amount of health care costs can be attributed to physical issues that may be preventable through proper diet and regular exercise and other conditions that were allowed to worsen while the officers involved failed to get them checked. A good health care plan is one that will not deter an employee from seeking medical assistance for an issue that may become worse if medical attention is not sought.

Also, to counter the problem of rising health care costs, agencies can take the fitness incentive program to the next level and offer another reward for those who wish to voluntarily participate. Let's say we have the previous incentive plan in place, and we now have a strong motivator to take the extra time to stay physically fit. Using the same formula for scoring, take each individual officer's yearly averaged percentile score and apply it to the mandated portion of his or her health care premium. Let's say your agency's premium per officer is $1,500 per month and the officer is required to contribute 20% toward that cost. That's $300 per month that comes out of that officer's monthly pay. But if that same officer scores a 75% on his or her yearly fitness test, apply that same standard to the premium and let the agency pay for 75% of the officer's required 20% ($300) contribution. That means the agency pays $225 of that officer's monthly premium contribution. The result is a fitter, happier officer and lower total healthcare premiums for the agency that employs that officer.

Sgt. Jeff Line has served with the Crawfordsville (Ind.) Police Department for 35 years. A certified firearms and psychomotor skills instructor, Line is a frequent guest instructor for the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy.

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