Holding the Line on Police Fitness Tests Even Though Fewer Women Pass Than Men

Colleen O'Dea | December 10, 2019 | More Issues
Senate committee learns women recruits are having a harder time than men, but female and male police officers argue against lowering the bar

New Jersey should not change police physical-fitness requirements, even though they are preventing female recruits from making the force at higher rates than males, several women in law enforcement told a Senate committee during a hearing on the issue Monday.

At the same time, the administrator of the New Jersey Police Training Commission (NJPTC) told members of the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee that the commission agreed at its meeting last week to take steps to address physical-fitness failure rates among all recruits. These include offering preparatory classes and recommending exercise regimens to help recruits succeed.

The committee devoted close to two hours to hearing testimony that women are failing at relatively high rates a fitness assessment required to graduate from the police academy that was put in place two years ago by the NJPTC. Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Mercer), committee chair, said the panel was concerned about “provocative” data published by the Asbury Park Press earlier this year that indicates “women do fail at a very different rate” than men.

According to the report, 31% of women failed the physical in 2017 and 18% failed in 2018, compared with about 2% for men in both years.

“Those numbers just jump off the page,” said Sen. Joseph Cryan (D-Union), a Union County undersheriff and member of the committee.

Should state lower the bar?

Most of those who testified before the committee said it is up to recruits to know the physical requirements of the job and condition themselves to meet those requirements, rather than expect the state to lower the bar.

But Newark Police Captain Ivonne Roman, the only person testifying who did not support the current fitness test, said New Jersey could face a class-action lawsuit and federal action because of the disparities in the fitness results.

“There cannot be a disparate outcome between men and women in physical fitness training unless it’s been validated,” she said, citing federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission mandates. While Roman refrained from expressing a personal opinion on the requirements, the 25-year officer did tell committee members, “I never had to get into a push-up contest with a suspect.”

To pass the New Jersey police academies’ fitness requirement, a recruit must:

  • Perform a 15-inch vertical jump;
  • Do 28 sit-ups in one minute;
  • Run 300 meters in no more than 70.1 seconds;
  • Perform 24 pushups in one minute;
  • Run 1.5 miles in 15:55 minutes or less.

Some of these requirements are more stringent than those required of state police recruits, who do not have to perform a vertical jump or 300-meter run. State police recruits are scored on a point system based on their achievements on all three required skills: For instance, a recruit would get no credit for running 1.5 miles in more than 14:27 minutes. State police also must pass a swim test.

Major Jeanne Hengemuhle, a 22-year veteran, said the State Police Academy has not “dismissed a recruit” for failing the physical fitness test since 2003, when six were dismissed and all were men. But a physical qualification test is one of the first hurdles an applicant must clear before being admitted to the academy. Prospective recruits must also complete a pre-employment preparation program that includes physical training sessions on how to increase cardiovascular endurance and upper body strength and swimming and water safety before admission.

Hengemuhle said the state police did have a 75-yard “pursuit run” as part of the physical fitness requirement for a time, but removed it in 2017 after finding that “females tended to fail that at a higher rate than males.”

She said being a police officer is a physical job and it’s up to hopeful recruits to “know what is expected of them” and train in order to pass the fitness requirements.

‘Guns and badges, not pens and paper’

“We’re not handing them pens and paper, we are handing them guns and badges,” Hengemuhle said. “For anyone who thinks that this is not a physical job, that is just not something that would be acceptable in my world.”

Jessica Plumeri, deputy chief of detectives with the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office and an NJPTC-certified physical training instructor since 2012, agreed.

“Recruits both male and female are coming into the academy not adequately prepared for the strenuous physical training required,” she said. “The pushup standard may be something that requires more preparation for a female than a male recruit, but it’s the responsibility of the recruit to determine which, if any, standard they are deficient in and prepare themselves to achieve that standard successfully prior to entering the police academy.”

Several women agreed that there should not be an easier standard for female officers.

Morris Plains Officer Annmarie Ferris (left) and Hanover Patrolwoman Megan Pritchard

“I do the same job as the men that I work with. I am expected to be the same,” said Morris Plains Officer Annmarie Ferris. “You cannot expect females to be treated equally if their standards are lower … I’m the first female officer in Morris Plains, the first female drill instructor with the Morris County Police Academy and president of PBA Local 254. I continue to break through the glass ceiling with hard work and do not expect that bar to be lowered. I would love to see more females in this job, as I believe we play a vital role, but I do not expect that to come through shortcuts.”

Those who spoke said they have seen a difference in preparation between recruits who pass a civil service test and think that means they are guaranteed a job and ones who took the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police exam. The website NJ Police Recruit.com lists 184 departments that follow civil service rules.

Female and male recruits unprepared

“They think they’re ready because they got the job,” Ferris said. “I mean they’re getting paid, they’re paid to be there … As a drill instructor, I ask them the first day, ‘How many pushups can you do?’ and they tell me five. And I ask them what the standard is, and they know what the standard is, so they know that they’re coming into the academy not prepared and it’s not just females.”

Plumeri said that while she did not have data, “It’s safe to say those that take civil service tests are less prepared.”

Megan Flanagan, a detective in the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office and president of New Jersey Women in Law Enforcement, said she thinks officials do not make the physical requirements clear enough prior to a recruit’s enrolling in an academy. She also said New Jersey lags behind other states in employing female officers — ranking 33rd, with women accounting for about 9.7% of the ranks. Still, she does not support watering down requirements for women.

“I implore you not to set separate standards for males and females,” she said. “I’ve spoken with fellow female law enforcement colleagues who have separate standards, and those females throughout their careers had a stigma attached. By having the same standards for males and females, you are creating a camaraderie between the male and female officers, and, more importantly, building relationship of trust between the two genders.”

On-the-job requirements

Roman did not ask for separate standards, but she said the state needs to justify that meeting all fitness requirements are necessary for on-the-job performance. She also warned that a class-action lawsuit against the state over the issue is in the works.

“Here, it is an overemphasis on upper body strength and it’s never been validated,” Roman said. “The law is the law and the law says that if you have a test that produces disparities, then you have to have it validated as being work-related.”

John Cunningham, administrator of the NJPTC, told committee members that the commission at its meeting last week voted to adopt a system similar to that of the state police to lower failure rates. It is directing all the police academies to “open their doors” to prospective recruits to help with their physical conditioning and give a fitness assessment prior to admission. The NJPTC is also creating a committee to reevaluate its physical standards and is going to better educate the public on the fitness requirements.

Moving in the right direction

“I think it’s a step in the right direction,” he said. “I think a big key for us at the commission is to make sure that we get the information out there, and we help people prepare. And I think that’s what’s most important.”

He also provided members with data for this year’s graduating classes — some had better outcomes than the averages last year. For instance, just half of women graduated from the Passaic County academy and 70% from Morris, but women graduated at the same rate as men, 80%, from the Essex academy and all the females who entered the Bergen and Cape May academies graduated.

Greenstein said committee members will consider all they heard before deciding what possible steps to take next.

“We got lots of great information here, and we have a lot to think about, and we’ll do that,” she said. “We’ll be talking to each other, see what we come up with.”