Each day during roll call, District cops receive a brief internal newsletter from their supervisors known as the Dispatch. This memo from the chief typically offers some department news and maybe a few crime statistics, but in the July 22 edition, officers got a look at some statistics of another kind. Dimensions, to be more exact.
In a section titled “ShapeUp!,” Chief Charles H. Ramsey admirably disclosed some unflattering numbers from his own life: a 247-pound frame and a 42-inch waist. He spoke frankly on the issue: “In my last visit to the doctor, he recommended that I might want to lose a few pounds….Knowing that weight plays a big factor in cardiovascular health, I realized that I either need to lose 50 pounds or grow two feet! So, I recently began a new program of exercise and weightlifting.”
The Dispatch has made a point of tracking the chief’s progress each week, and Ramsey’s happy to report that he’s already shed about 20 pounds, his migraine headaches have all but disappeared, and he’s dropped a couple of pants sizes for those CNN appearances. He’s hoping his personal initiative and straight talk on a touchy subject might inspire cops of all ranks, especially those on the street, to take their health and fitness more seriously. On a scale of 1 to 10, he gives his department about a “5 or 6” on physical condition. “We’re not the worst—I’ve seen far worse,” he says.
But this city has a fit set of perps. Take this summer’s criminal du jour—the kiddie car thief. He’s in his early to mid-teens, maybe even a high-school athlete, and with his fresh legs and disregard for consequences, he has no reason not to make a break for it when confronted. Worse yet, consider those brawny bank heisters who were strapped with assault rifles as they strolled into a SunTrust in Northwest back in June. Would you want to see a 5-out-of-10 cop have to confront one of those guys in the middle of Connecticut Avenue?
When we see a hefty flatfoot taking a pass on the alley chase or putting in a request for sick leave, we like to think of the old fat-cop, jelly-doughnut cliché. But within D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department, the slow metabolism is more than a stereotype; it’s a way of life. Sure, some of those pounds and inches come with the demands of the job—it’s no secret that shift work destroys a body—but cop culture and department policy see to it that nearly all officers eventually fall out of shape on their way to retirement.
But that’s assuming they weren’t out of shape to begin with….
Welcome to the Academy
A city that finds itself declaring a crime emergency annually, the District is starving for more officers to fill the ranks and the streets. The department’s already set the all-but-unattainable goal of attracting a thousand new applicants within a year. You can’t expect them all to be Robocop.
Gone are the days when departments held applicants to height-and-weight standards, or when cops working patrol could be given citations for putting on too much weight.
More likely a college grad than an ex-Marine, today’s romantic recruit can forget about scaling chain-link fences or heaving limp dummies over his shoulder in pursuit of that shiny badge. Most high-school athletes would scoff at the academy’s physical-fitness test, which is broken down by age and gender: If you’re a 20-something male, you’ll need to bang out 33 push-ups in a minute, do 40 sit-ups in a minute, run a mile and a half in 12:18, and dash 300 meters in a little over a minute. On the other extreme, if you’re a 50-something female looking for a career change, you’ll need to muster 13 push-ups and 17 sit-ups, run the mile and a half in 17:29, and sprint 300 meters in a minute and a quarter.
Those cutoff numbers aren’t arbitrary. As it says in the Recruit Officer Handbook, the standards are based on the abilities of the 50th percentile of the general population for each sex and age group. In other words, you need to be no more fit than the average Joe or Jane Schmo walking the District’s streets to make it through the academy. And things have only been getting easier: Recruits once had to pass a “physical ability test” that better reflected the job—exiting a cruiser quickly, running through cones, going up stairs, dragging a dummy, crawling under tables, climbing a fence—but it was recently done away with.
Survival of the Fattest
For those recruits who struggle to reach the 50th percentile marker, there’s good news. You need to achieve mediocrity for only one day out of your career—the day you take the academy’s final physical-fitness test—and the instructors at the Maurice T. Turner Jr. Institute of Police Science have 10 weeks of phys-ed to get you there. If you’re feeling butterflies over a poor physique, you’ll be relieved once you get a look at your comrades during orientation. According to Lt. Will Goodwin, commander of the Specialized Training Branch at the academy, only “about 5 to 10 percent come in physically fit.”
You’ll go through three physical fitness tests during those two-and-a-half months—the preliminary test to measure your incoming abilities, an interim test to mark your progress, and a final test to determine whether you meet the standards. But if you fail that final test, don’t fret. It isn’t really the final test. You’ll be given the opportunity to take part in a remedial fitness program, where instructors target the specific area or areas you’ve been struggling with. Then you get another shot. But if you fail again, don’t fret. That one isn’t really the final final test, either. If your spirit isn’t entirely broken, you’ll be given a physical to make sure nothing is seriously wrong with you, and then you’ll get a third and final crack at the final test. If you fail that, you’ll be recommended for dismissal.
In reality, hardly anyone gets dismissed from the academy for fitness issues. Goodwin says that, on average, “one or maybe two” recruits out of a class of 25 to 40 will ultimately fail to meet the physical requirements or drop out because of the demands. Charles Yarbaugh, an emergency-response team member who worked as an academy instructor throughout the ’90s, says the department’s fitness test has always been designed to see that essentially everyone gets pushed through. “It’s really a no-fail situation, and it’s always been like that,” he says. “It’s a numbers thing. You water down the fitness regulations and get more officers in….But you’re just running your wheels in the mud once they get on sick leave.”
Failure Is Not an Option
If you do find yourself in that small, unfortunate percentage, you have a couple of options beyond working as a security guard:
•Sue the department. It’s been done before. In 1999, former D.C. police recruit Jeff Hedgepeth filed a discrimination suit against the department after the academy dismissed him for failing the mile-and-a-half run. Citing the Civil Rights Act of 1991, Hedgepeth’s lawyers claimed the department’s fitness test was biased along gender lines. If everyone was applying for the same job, they asked, why did a woman in her 20s have 14:08 to run the course, while Hedgepeth and other 20-something men had only 11:18?
Hedgepeth was suing in part to be reinstated with the department, but the case was settled before going to trial. Anyway, if he’s still dead-set on joining the D.C. police, Hedgepeth should consider giving it another try: Since the year he failed, the department has added a full minute to the mile-and-a-half cutoff time.
•Look at departments with even lower standards. Baltimore’s numbers are more forgiving across the board, and that department’s fitness pamphlet presciently offers this helpful suggestion: “BEGIN YOUR EXERCISE IMMEDIATELY. DO NOT WAIT UNTIL THE DAY BEFORE THE AGILITY TEST.”
Standards all but disappear in Virginia. Along with a routine physical, Alexandria asks that you pass a pulmonary-function test and fall within acceptable body-fat percentages: 20 percent for males, 26 percent for females (each slightly higher than the general population average). They’ll evaluate you on your fitness progress at the academy, but, in the end, “everybody passes,” says Susan Story, commander of personnel and training. Same goes for Arlington—you’re tested in muscular and aerobic fitness, but there’s “no requirement that you make progress to graduate,” says spokesperson Matt Martin.
But if you’re out of shape, steer clear of Prince George’s County. In addition to passing a physical exam at the academy, all officers sworn in after July 1, 2001, have to pass a physical agility test each year if they want a raise or promotion, according to Lt. Steve Yuen.
The Freshman 15
By most accounts, falling out of shape after the academy isn’t a possibility so much as an inevitability. “Essentially, within your first year out of the academy, you’re incapable of doing your job,” says Dr. Paul Davis, a Silver Spring kinesiologist who ran a police fitness competition at the Washington Convention Center in July.
It’s only logical. Overnight you trade your young and probably active lifestyle for a career of shift work, eating out, eating on the run, and spending entire afternoons in a cruiser. “Whether it’s stress, whether it’s the hours, or whether it’s the nature of sitting sedentary in a car for hours—your body’s not going to burn the fat the way it used to,” says Sgt. Brett Parson.
Yarbaugh gives newly sworn officers less than two years before they’re dumpy, “and that’s being generous,” he adds. Goodwin is more optimistic: “For the first five years, I’d put our force against any other in terms of physical shape.”
A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich
So you pull the 7th District in Southeast as your first assignment—a good deal if you aspire to someday work homicide, but not if you plan on counting calories. “When I worked in 7D, you had a choice between Popeyes and Burger King,” says Lt. Mike Gottert, who now supervises vegan-friendly Adams Morgan in the 3rd District. “And pretty much any kitchen closes at 10 or 11.”
Still can’t find that major grocery store after working 7D patrols for six months? You should stop looking, because there isn’t one. What you will find, however, are a McDonald’s, a Burger King, a Domino’s, two Popeyes, and more carryouts than you can shake a greasy spoon at. In fact, the closest dining establishment to 7D headquarters is the New York Fried Chicken on Alabama Avenue SE, just two blocks away. When you start your morning shift, don’t expect the smiling man behind the plexiglass to offer you a tray with your bacon-egg-and-cheese croissant—there are no tables or chairs, so you’ll be dining in your cruiser—but you’ll be pleasantly surprised when he rings up your check. “We give [7D officers] a 10 percent discount on everything,” says New York Fried Chicken manager Hedayat Ullah. “Those guys come in here all the time.”
When the fried drumsticks start make themselves conspicuous in your dress blues, don’t worry about any hardy superiors breathing down your neck(s). Academy instructors can’t recall the department’s ever enforcing any kind of fitness standards for sworn officers. In the mid-’90s, the academy spent time developing an in-service fitness program, but it eventually fell by the wayside—as did the idea of an incentive program that would have given cops bonuses or time off for passing a fitness test, according to Yarbaugh. “It all falls on deaf ears,” he says. Unsurprisingly, beat cops are hard-pressed to think of any peers who’ve been pulled off the street for weight issues. Once you meet the academy’s minimal standards, you have no obligations to your body beyond passing a routine physical exam every other year.
Wellness being pretty much optional, weight rooms at the district stations typically don’t see much use, aside from the same small corps of fit cops who work out week after week. For years, Doug Jefferies, owner of the two Results gyms in D.C., has been offering area cops about $125 off the initiation fee and an additional $30 off each month’s dues at his clubs. The response has been mixed. More than 100 cops, from various D.C. agencies, have joined the Capitol Hill outfit, thanks in part to an aggressive campaign on the gym’s part, but only nine officers are enrolled at the Results across the street from the 3rd District station on U Street NW.
Lt. Mike Smith of the 3rd District once left a stack of postcards explaining the Results discount at a department get-together, but he found his co-workers were more interested in the coupons to local restaurants. “And when you think about it, [the gym membership] is actually a better deal,” he says.
Wrestling With the Common Criminal
Unfortunately, as you skip the gym, grow older, and see your metabolism slow, the criminal element remains young and healthy. Nothing in the perp’s handbook requires that he meet a particular body-fat ratio before robbing a bank, but if scientific studies and anecdotal cop stories are any indication, the bad guys tend to be in better shape than their pursuers, if only because of the age advantage. Davis, the kinesiologist, recently conducted a health and body study of more than 900 arrestees in a Pennsylvania jail to get a feel for their specs. His median criminal was a tough dude: “Twenty-one years old, about 6 percent body fat, 5-foot-10, with an estimated aerobic capacity in the high 40s to low 50s. Nothing other than a function of youth.”
The more muscle-bound cops love referring to the criminal’s impressive physique when plugging higher fitness standards, but the chief says the cops-vs.-perps physical comparison has no bearing on practical policing. “I don’t care what kind of shape you’re in, you can find somebody on the street who can kick your ass,” says Ramsey. “The point is not to be the toughest guy on the street, but to be at a certain level where you can protect somebody and protect yourself.”
Having to protect yourself is one thing, but having to run somebody down in an alley—or God forbid, climb a fence—is something else entirely. “Fences and fire escapes—you can forget about that kind of stuff [if you’re out of shape],” says Smith, whose Shaw patrol area is rich with such obstacles. And if that median criminal proves to be too fleet-footed, you might give up on foot chases altogether.
Luckily, there are only a handful of perps you can count on bolting when confronted:
•The convict. If anyone has a reason to run like hell, it’s the guy with unserved time dangling over his head. “They got a 10-year sentence and they served two, so they got eight hanging over them if they’re caught,” says Gottert. And as if the freedom incentive weren’t enough, these guys tend to be quick: “Those 22-year-old kids who’ve been in prison working out—we’re gonna come out behind.” •The drug dealer or gangbanger, if only because of his favorable reward-to-risk ratio. If he can make it to that alley and toss his dope or Glock in the bushes, then he’s just another citizen walking the streets. “They’re gonna run,” says Officer Cameron Hawkins, who was once named Officer of the Month for chasing down a gunman.
•The teenager. Don’t expect any District teen to stay put when you yell “Freeze!” If he’s not already at the wheel of a stolen Caprice, his fresh feet will suffice for a quick getaway, and the phrase “evading police” means nothing to him. “I’m not so out of shape I can’t chase down a 14-year-old kid in a foot chase,” says Parson. “But there are many officers—not the majority—where that’s not the case.”
Car 54, Where Are You?
If you’ve been on the force for a good decade and you’re direly out of shape, you probably won’t risk the pulled hamstring or wounded pride when a fit youngster makes a break. But that’s not to say there aren’t other options. “Perps can’t outrun the radio,” says one 3rd District foot-patrol officer, a five-year vet, who said he’d speak frankly only on condition of anonymity. “You just get on the radio and see what’s in the area, give a description.”
It’s the perfect backfall for his patrol area—a densely populated neighborhood where another officer is always right around the corner. Of course, someone will eventually have to get out of his cruiser, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be you. “Personally, I don’t run anymore,” the veteran continues, just before amending that statement: “For a beer or a bag of weed, I wouldn’t chase you. But if you just killed somebody, or sexually assaulted somebody, then yeah, I’d go after you.”
If you do lose the race, nobody needs to know about it. After all, you don’t fill out incident reports detailing how badly you got smoked in a foot chase. “We don’t keep a record on those,” says Parson. “The only guy who knows about those is him.”
He Ain’t Heavy—He’s My Brother
If you can’t reach any other officers in the area, you can try delegating the foot-chase duties to your partner—but not if he’s one of the mid-career recruits from another jurisdiction, in which case he may be more of a fitness disaster than you.
Five years ago, the D.C. Council passed emergency legislation to allow career cops from other agencies to join the city’s force with minimum hassle. In a rush to get them on the street, the department was giving these “lateral-hire” transfers full police powers after an abbreviated training period. No fitness test was required.
“If they’re out of shape in their department, they can come into ours out of shape,” says Yarbaugh. “You’d think, If I’m paying him, it should be required for him to stay in shape.”
Ramsey says the missing fitness requirement was an oversight; the department started testing lateral hires by the same fitness standards as entry-level recruits this year, according to Cmdr. Cheryl Pendergast.
You or your partner’s subpar performance on the street will remain your own little secret—unless, of course, you get sued because of it. Theoretical situation: A victim struggles with a thief in an alley, and you watch helplessly from the other side of a chain-link fence you can’t scale. Can you or your department actually be held responsible for your poor physical condition? Experts in the field consulted for this story know of only one police agency to have been sued for inadequate physical training: D.C.’s own Metropolitan Police Department.
In 1983, District resident Donald Parker, a paraplegic, filed suit against the city for his injuries, which stemmed from his 1982 arrest on an outstanding warrant. Parker’s lawyers argued in part that the D.C. officer, Williams Hayes, shot Parker twice, including once in the spine, because he was in poor physical shape and couldn’t subdue the unarmed arrestee otherwise. According to court documents, Hayes, a decorated Vietnam vet and standout cop early in his career, had been cited a few times for being overweight in the years leading up to the shooting. He also had a bum shoulder and hadn’t received any physical training in four years.
Although the shooting may have been justified—Parker resisted arrest, and Hayes thought he was reaching for a gun in his waistband—Parker’s lawyers argued a case worth more than $400,000 in damages. The U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the decision and opined on the department’s lackadaisical fitness program: “Officer Hayes’ conduct was the result of deliberate indifference on the part of the District with respect to the physical training of its police officers.”
Parker vs. District of Columbia remains a benchmark case nationally, oft-cited by those pushing for higher standards at police academies. “It’s the only case I know of” where a department was held liable for its lack of fitness standards, says Bob Hoffman, a trainer and consultant who lectures departments around the country on the legal issues of police fitness. “But these lawsuits are out there waiting to happen. There will be more and more of these Parker-vs.-the-District cases.”
Grading With a Curve
In terms of monetary costs, legal liability accounts for just a tiny slice of the obesity pie. The real price tag comes with sick leave, injury leave, and medical expenses. The D.C.
Council has taken notice: A bill passed in June will require the D.C. department to develop an agility test to be taken by sworn officers every other year. “It didn’t make any sense to me for there not to be any requirements,” says Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson, who’s been pounding the department for its inflated number of officers on sick and injury leave—nearly 10 percent of the force as of last September.
But if you’re a potbellied veteran, you needn’t lose sleep over the impending tests just yet. Sufficiently vague in its orders, the bill may essentially require no more than a halfassed jumping jack out of you. Furthermore, it doesn’t even suggest what disciplinary action—if any at all—can be taken if you fail. “It’s very unclear,” notes Ramsey. “We’ll have to think about what it is that would be done. I don’t know if that’s something you can fire someone over.” Patterson says she assumed the penalty would be dismissal from the force: “I would certainly hope so, if someone can’t perform the job.”
By law, the department has until late in the year to develop the agility test, but the chief says he already has a few ideas in his bag, none of them American Gladiators fare. “They’ll need to be able to walk, maybe hit some stairs,” says Ramsey. “It needs to be something fairly basic, but [it should] at least demonstrate the ability to move and handle a minimal amount of exertion….We’re not gonna have guys jumping 6-foot fences. That’s why God invented gates.” As for penalties for your failure, Ramsey suggests the possibility of placing you on a diet.
Crime-fighting aside, that diet’s for your own good, to ward off that mid- to late-career heart attack. But it’s also for the city’s financial good. Although nobody knows with any certainty how much money an out-of-shape police force actually costs the city, piecemeal you can get a feel for the expenses: an in-the-line-of-duty heart attack costs the public between $400,000 and $750,000, after death or disability benefits and rehiring and training, according to Jay Smith, a private consultant who develops fitness programs for police agencies.
But the overall costs of an out-of-shape police force are harder to ascertain. Through the Freedom of Information Act, the Washington City Paper sought out statistics from the city’s Police and Fire Clinic on the number of officers reported with conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, and sleep apnea. The request was denied, mainly because the clinic primarily treats injuries and has no such statistics. “Early, early on, we hoped we could easily capture that information,” says Dr. Michelle Smith-Jefferies, interim clinic director. “But we couldn’t do it, the way the systems are set up.”
The city contracts with Providence Hospital and the Washington Hospital Center to operate the clinic; the private entity they form, PFC Associates, isn’t required to compile health statistics for the police or fire department. “That should be a part of the contract,” argues Patterson.
The clinic does, however, offer a health and wellness institute. Among the free programs are a smoking-cessation tutorial and a Weight Watchers–style class where you can learn about portion size, good eating, and a healthy all-around lifestyle. Clinic doctors will refer anyone who looks like a good candidate, but your peers aren’t exactly lining up to take part in the programs. “I wouldn’t say they’re eager,” says Smith-Jefferies. As with most health-related issues in the department, your participation is optional.
Elephant in the Room
Even if the docs at the clinic think you should start dieting, don’t worry about your poundage problem being addressed within station walls. Ramsey may not mind putting his weight out on the table, but most cops on the force would rather the weight issue remain unaddressed. Parson remembers a time one of his officers requested injury leave after his foot crashed through a wooden porch step during a routine burglary call.
Parson didn’t mince words in his investigation: “I said I couldn’t help but to think, Had he not been so heavy, the stair wouldn’t have given way. But I was told at the time, ‘Take that out [of the report].’ A superior said, ‘You don’t get to put that in there.’ And that’s not the first time I’ve heard of that happening.”
The officer weighed about 340 pounds at the time.CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Robert Ullman.