Incentives and Volunteers

A Pennsylvania police department's voluntary fitness program is motivating officers and helping build community.

Running drills are just one part of this law enforcement fitness program. Photo courtesy of Cranberry Township, PA Police Department.Running drills are just one part of this law enforcement fitness program. Photo courtesy of Cranberry Township, PA Police Department.I'm Darnell Dinkins, and I'm a physical fitness trainer. In addition to my personal training business, E.T.H.I.C. Training, I run a fitness program for the members of the Cranberry Township police force in a suburb of Pittsburgh, PA. I love coaching officers as part of the Elite Police FIT program. It's distinctive in that it is voluntary and uses incentives to help officers achieve their own personal best fitness levels. And I'd like to tell you about it.

What Led Me to Police Fitness Training

First, let me give you a little background. I grew up in Pittsburgh's inner-city neighborhood known as the Hill District. It's the same Hill District that inspired the 1980s TV series Hill Street Blues. As you can imagine, it was an environment where crime and drugs were common. So as a kid growing up there, my relationship with the local police was, shall we say, a complex one.

The Elite Police FIT program helps build camaraderie among the officers involved, in addition to improving their fitness levels. Photo courtesy of Cranberry Township, PA Police Department.The Elite Police FIT program helps build camaraderie among the officers involved, in addition to improving their fitness levels. Photo courtesy of Cranberry Township, PA Police Department.In my own case, part of that complexity came from having an uncle, who looks a lot like me, and who worked as a police officer for the city's public school district. I loved the guy and spent as much time with him as I could. Also, like a lot of kids my age at the time, I loved superheroes, action heroes, he-men who would fight for justice. The superhero role, in my mind, was all tied up with being a police officer. And I imagined myself becoming some kind of police detective, wearing a sharp suit and looking really cool.

I also loved sports — all kinds of sports. So when I got to high school, I played on the football team and did really well. Then I was recruited to join the football team at Pitt, the University of Pittsburgh, which was within walking distance from where I grew up. That worked out well, too, although I got injured and a lot of my recovery took place in a police gym. Then I was drafted by the NFL and over the next 10 years played for the Giants, the Ravens, and the Browns. But my final team was the New Orleans Saints the year they won the Super Bowl. Then I retired and went to coach at Rutgers.

However, my home had always been the Pittsburgh area, and my fantasy of becoming some sort of law enforcement action figure had never really gone away. So two years ago, I returned.

Workout Ethic

Photo courtesy of Cranberry Township, PA Police Department.The idea of creating a training center was actually my wife's. Over the years, she had heard me giving motivational talks to groups of young people and she felt that I should go beyond just talking and create something to capture those ideas and help kids achieve success. That led to the business we now call E.T.H.I.C. Training. Its name is an acronym for Effort, Toughness, Heart, Intensity, and Commitment, which is shorthand for the philosophy I've been trying to teach.

At just about that same time, Cranberry Township police Chief Kevin Meyer — who has been a fitness enthusiast for years—was trying to figure out how to help his officers become more effective in their work and reduce their risk of injury on the job. That was when a Cranberry Township employee, who happened to be the mom of two kids I was training at E.T.H.I.C., introduced me to Chief Meyer. Then things started falling into place, and the program now known as Elite Police FIT came into being.

Of course, there's nothing new about the idea that police officers should be physically fit for duty. But there have been serious problems with implementing police fitness programs that actually work. The reasons why they've failed include lack of leadership, lack of resources, lack of political backing, lack of union support, lack of motivation, privacy laws like HIPAA, and non-discrimination rules. In Cranberry's case, however, all the pieces came together around a program that is both completely voluntary and has been able to attract support from local businesses as well as from the Township itself.

That gave me the opportunity to work with the Township on a program that brought together the two things I love most: athletic fitness and police work. And it involves more than just muscle tone.

One of my favorite Yogi Berra quotes is his math-challenged observation about baseball. "Baseball is 90 percent mental," he said. "The other half is physical."

It's the same with police work, and the two concepts are closely tied together. A lot of the self-assurance that allows someone to succeed in sports or in law enforcement grows from being confident that they are physically up to the challenge. Yet in both cases, you're never sure where that challenge is going to come from. It might require running down a road, or climbing a wall, or crawling, or lifting someone. If you don't get it right, you may not have a chance for a re-do. So being in good physical and mental shape is critical. And the conditioning that's appropriate for football is very similar to the conditioning that makes sense for police work.

So in our Police FIT program, we do upper body work, we work on endurance, we work on stamina. But, as Yogi Berra might have said, 10 percent is situation, 90 percent is determining how you respond to the situation. If you don't think you can catch up with someone because you know you can only run 30 yards before your heart starts pounding, that shifts the burden onto another officer. Not good.

Key Elements of Cranberry Township's Elite Police FIT Program

  • Secure political support
  • Identify an inside champion
  • Make it completely voluntary
  • Respect health information privacy
  • Provide meaningful incentives
  • Individualize goals for gender and age
  • Welcome outside partners

In the Gym

It's essential that routines and goals be tailored for every individual officer. Photo courtesy of Cranberry Township, PA Police Department.It's essential that routines and goals be tailored for every individual officer. Photo courtesy of Cranberry Township, PA Police Department.Our workouts are done both individually and collectively. We have weight stations. Officers do explosive step-ups with one leg banded, trying to increase their range of motion. We'll rotate ropes for a minute to work on front shoulder stability. We'll hit a sledge hammer on a tire for 30 seconds on the right side, 30 seconds on the left side, working on the obliques and overall shoulder strength. We do lifts, laterals, squats, lunges, and a lot of the movements an athlete would need in their sport.

However, no two police officers entering the FIT program are the same. There are older guys, younger guys, big guys, small guys, guys who are trim and guys who are not. There are family guys and single guys. There are also female officers in addition to the men in the program. So one of the keys we've found is to tailor the routines and goals for every individual. We start from wherever they are and work with them on becoming their best, which is different for everyone.

Photo courtesy of Cranberry Township, PA Police Department.Photo courtesy of Cranberry Township, PA Police Department.To help, the Township offers incentives to officers who achieve different levels of fitness as defined by their individual programs. Part of it involves recognition, including a pin on their uniform. Paid time off is also available — the greater the achievement, the more paid time off. At the same time, though, we're wary of tracking performance too closely; what we're trying to create is a lifestyle, not a benchmark checkbox. We want participants to see the results in themselves and for that to be the most important reward. For a voluntary program like ours, that's critical.

But there's another payoff that's equally important. It's that just as on a football team, there is a sense of trust and camaraderie created by working hard together. It carries over to every other aspect of the lives and work of our police officers as well as to our own training staff. In the case of the Cranberry Township Police Department, it creates a positive message at a time when there is so much negativity and mistrust surrounding law enforcement. But through this program, we've been able to succeed and grow together as a team. And that's huge.

Darnell Dinkins is a 10-year veteran of the NFL and former Rutgers football coach. He is currently the owner of E.T.H.I.C. Training in Cranberry Township, PA.

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