This is an admittedly delicate subject. In fact, there are few topics in this broad wide world which engender more rancorous discourse and will inevitably lead to someone being termed “harsh” or “unfair.” This is a subject not broached in respectful company, especially in this era of hand wringing sensitivity.
I am speaking about the problem of obesity. In particular, the problem of obesity among police officers.
The fat burning question is: are there some police officers who are too “fat” for the job? It’s a question that is clearly part of a bigger question –whether police need to be in premium shape in order to fulfill their duties. If one assumes that there is a physical element to the job, and there is no convincing evidence that upper management in the RCMP concede this; this seems like an easy question to answer.
What prompted this broad question is a policy which has been instituted, in of all places, the State of Texas, the Lone Star State of big vistas and big state boundaries. The people who run the Texas Rangers, a very well-regarded police agency we should add, has now come out and dared to go where others fear to tread. They in essence have implemented a “chubby list” –for want of a better term. They are apparently now prepared to shame some of their officers into maintaining certain health and fitness standards and have drawn a line in the sand. If not met, the officers could ultimately face suspension.
Before people start writing to this blog in protest, the least we should do is explore this policy that has been implemented.
The Department of Public Safety for the state of Texas oversees the Texas State Troopers. The “Troopers” are about 4,000 officers strong and are spread throughout the state. The Department is implementing these guidelines because they feel, and have concluded that part of a police officers job is to have a “command presence”. In other words you must look the part, as it commands respect and cooperation and therefore enables one to do their job better.
As much as we hate to admit it, one would think that most police officers would agree that this is in fact the case. Someone who is overweight, or sloppy in their appearance will seemingly not get the street respect often needed to control or coerce, rightly or wrongly; it just seems to be a fact. There have been psychological studies which in fact back up this theory and of course it is also true outside of policing in the “real” world.
So what the Department of Public Safety has dared to do was state that male officers must have a waist line of 40″ or under, and a female officer must have a stated waistline of 35″. I should say in terms of full disclosure, after 34 years in policing, the last ten years of my service meeting this standard would have been a real struggle. With middle age the downward spiral inevitably begins, or that’s what most would blame- it couldn’t possibly be the two in the morning hamburgers or muffins.
Now, we should also point out that the Department has allowed for exceptions to the rule, so it is on a bit of a sliding scale which takes into consideration; height, weight and levels of body fat. When they reviewed all their officers, 213 failed the test, a mere 5.3%. Of those 213 only two had failed the original fitness test and therein lies the rub and the argument.
Nevertheless, the officers that couldn’t meet the girth guidelines have until December 1, 2023 to slim down. Until then, they will be barred from promotion, lose any overtime opportunities, and could be re-assigned. If they is no final compliance layoffs could follow. They will all have counsellors available who will put them on less sugar diets and will encourage and teach them how to avoid fast foods. All of it geared of course, to a goal of solid physical conditioning and a healthier lifestyle. All of those involved must document their progress and be prepared to share their health records.
Of course there are protests. In 2019 the Texas Department of Public Safety Officers Association launched a lawsuit describing the terms of the policy “arbitrary” and “unfair to women”. The lawsuit was dismissed, but only because at that date and time nobody had actually lost their job over not meeting these conditions. (One would have thought that the lawyers for the Association could have pointed this out in the beginning). Arbitrary of course means random and unpredictable, which doesn’t seem to apply, the rules are pretty black and white and addressed to all, and all levels of management. I am assuming the “unfairness to women” is being argued due to the vagaries of child birth etc., which seems somewhat legitimate, but maybe not totally.
Clearly, there are holes in the policy as currently being reported, but unfortunately we do not have the full policy in front of us. As an example, a 5’2″ female with a 34″ waistline would likely be termed obese in normal measurement standards, but in this instance they would they meet the guidelines? How would that work? Again, we aren’t privy to all the vagaries of their current measurement system.
An interesting question is could we imagine a similar policy in Canada?
When this blogger was beginning his career with the Mounties in the late 1970’s and stationed in J Division (New Brunswick) there was a “fatty list”. And admittedly, some wore the designation with a tinge of pride. Those on the list were determined to be overweight and given a time line to get rid of their expanding bellies. Of course, like a lot of Mountie human resource mandates, there was no enforcement or follow thru, and the policy just died on the vine, never to be heard of again. Even back then, in those now archaic times, management did not have the fortitude to take on this subject.
Nowadays all police agencies demand that one pass a fitness test to gain entry. That is routine and standard. The “PARE” is the Mountie grind it out rite of passage, and all the other police departments seem to have similar tests to get in.
Once in the rank though one is free to take part in any smorgasbord or buffet that comes before you. Oh sure there are physicals every few years, but no one seems to be called up for being overweight. (Covid should have proven to us that obesity is a significant medical condition so one wonders how doctors overlook this, or more precisely ignore it in terms of one’s ability to do the job.)
The only real negative for being out of shape, other on a personal level, is that over time you may be forced to re-order uniforms at your expense to cover your waistline. Casual observation leads one to believe that having to buy new uniform every few years or so doesn’t seem to have been much of a deterrent.
The poor Mounties in terms of their looks are already behind the eight ball. The Mountie uniform has to be considered one of the ugliest in the policing universe, khaki on blue with a yellow stripe would only be something that could be approved by people who did not need to wear it. If you have a larger than normal circumference, then you throw on that bullet proof vest over top, with notebooks, pens, and assorted papers and you have quite a sight that is sure never to grace the pages of Vogue. We won’t even mention the hat. Changes to the uniform have been studied for decades, but everyone knows how that goes.
The municipal agencies seem to fare much better, with the usual dark blue or black shirt and matching pants, and for the most part have a much better uniform presence. And even though technically they have no weight and height standards, they benefit from many applicants for fewer jobs, and discreetly pick and choose those that may fit the uniform “presence” much better.
When I think of the now put upon Texas cops, quite honestly the figure of 5.3% seems low. I have seen many Dallas and Houston cops over the years, and let’s be frank, very few men would have a 38″ waist line. As they used to say about Texas, there are some “big ol boys” down there.
Kidding aside, one would be hard pressed to argue that any policy which encourages better health and fitness should ever be seen as a negative. The problem is drawing the line. Is the Texas line too harsh for application in Canada? Maybe. But right now, the Mounties and other agencies, once one is brought into the blue fold, don’t even have a line in the sand. One would think that there could be a compromise position.
If only the police could be like the fire men and women (those other “first responders”) who can work out while they work and get a good nights rest while on duty. They also eat very well judging by the amount of times I’ve seen the fire trucks parked in front of the grocery store. Let’s face it, it works, they usually look very fit. Jealously will get you nowhere.
In the overall list of problems facing the RCMP in 2022 it will be conceded that this may not be the biggest problem. The Mounties are struggling, the Province of British Columbia has also now announced the possible study and formation of a Provincial Police Force –albeit a long way down the road.
If there is any lesson in this, it should be accepted that policing is a physically tough job. It wears and tears at your body over the years, no matter how much you try to keep in shape. Police should welcome stringent guidelines, not for “presence” but for one’s own personal safety and well being. If implemented in Canada, however, there is little doubt that every police union would fight it– but that may not be a good thing. Food for thought.
Anyways, I am off to the gym. Until next time.
Photo Courtesy of Flickr Commons by Eric McGregor – Some Rights Reserved