From time to time law enforcement requires sudden, strenuous exertion and exceptional physical performance. During an emergency an officer is required to use large muscle groups and related connective tissues in such activities as pursuit, arrest, and restrain of suspects, victim extrication and rescue, high-speed motor vehicle operation, and the use of a variety of firearms and non-lethal weapons. The stresses placed on the various muscle groups are, in turn, transferred to the cardiovascular system (i.e. heart, lungs, and blood vessels). Researchers have noted that, even in controlled police training exercises, officers’ heart rates commonly exceed 90 percent of their maximum until the activity is completed. Consistently, an officer’s pulse will go above 170 beats per minute during these situations.

Although law enforcement activities can be extremely physically demanding from time to time, a majority of the job-related duties of officers can be characterized as sedentary in nature (i.e. vehicle patrol, investigative activity, paper work, public education, courtroom and detention facility monitoring). Such tasks are not conducive to the maintenance of a high level of physical fitness. In fact, the combination of intermittent, sudden, strenuous exertion and a basically sedentary work environment is responsible for a significant number of on-the-job injuries and illnesses in law enforcement.

An additional impetus to examine the health and fitness of public safety personnel has been the increase in litigation concerning officer use of force. The courts have held agencies responsible when officers who were not physically fit utilized lethal weapons in subduing unarmed suspects. In (Parker v. District of Columbia, 1988) the police department was held liable for the wrongful shooting, and permanent injury of an unarmed citizen who was resisting arrest. Considering the officer’s lack of fitness and conditioning, the court stated it was apparent that the most effective method the officer had in subduing the suspect was the use of a firearm, instead of the application of physical force. The court further found a deliberate indifference on the part of the police department with respect to adequately maintaining officers’ levels of fitness, thus resulting in a foreseeable risk to others.

Unless law enforcement agencies are willing to place sufficient emphasis on developing and maintaining fitness levels which allow their personnel to perform effectively in high-stress situations, they will be faced with on-going disability claims from officers in less than optimal condition who are injured in the line of duty. It has been estimated that a municipality may have to pay as much as $400,000 more for a “disability” retirement than a “normal” retirement. Additionally, these agencies will be vulnerable to lawsuits when their less fit personnel are unable to perform their policing duties in a manner that protects the safety and welfare of the general public.

In response to a growing concern for the disabling illnesses and injuries suffered by their personnel, Police Departments and Sheriff’s Departments in Virginia began to address the issue of officer health and safety in the late 1980’s. In November of 1989 Dr. David L. Bever, a professor of health education at George Mason University, developed the LawFit® Program for law enforcement personnel with the assistance of the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services.  The LawFit Program was designed to increase the cardiorespiratory efficiency, muscular strength, muscular endurance, lean body mass, and flexibility of officers.  Personnel from participating departments completed an initial battery of tests to measure their levels of fitness. These tests included:

  • One repetition-maximum bench press
  • 1 minute timed sit-up test
  • Sit & reach flexibility test
  • Push-ups
  • Pull-ups
  • 1.5 mile run
  • Body fat estimation
  • Resting heart rate
  • Blood pressure

These tests were selected, since they have been found to be good predictors of the five major areas of fitness (aerobic capacity, muscular strength, muscular endurance, flexibility, and body composition).

Since the inception of LawFit® there has been a highly significant increase in the levels of fitness of officers who have participated. With this increase in fitness there has been a reduction in lost-worktime injuries and workers’ compensation claims. Additionally, participating departments have noted that when officers have been injured in the line of duty they have recovered more quickly than those not participating in the program.