Think back to the last law enforcement conference or seminar that you attended. No doubt there were plenty of topics and expert speakers to choose from. Having taught and lectured at many conferences around the country to law enforcement, EMS, and fire departments a common theme continues to emerge. After almost every lecture that I present, especially to law enforcement professionals, the most common question and the biggest issue discussed is simply what to do about officers that are clearly unfit to perform basic tasks of their job.
I can recall a sheriff at one of my lectures who was very concerned about one of his deputies. The sheriff's particular concern was both and ethical and professional. He told me the story of a Deputy that we will call John. John is a good officer. He has been with the department for over eight years and is very dedicated to upholding the law. John is a family man with a wife and two kids and is an active member his community. Since John joined the sheriff's department over eight years ago he has steadily gained weight and let his fitness deteriorate. John is well over 325 pounds and is clearly showing difficulty performing the basic functions of this job. Not only has John become a risk to himself and his partners due to his physical limitations but his health has begun to change as well.
John is in his early 30s and is now borderline diabetic and has high blood pressure. On top of that the excess weight coupled with long hours sitting on patrol has caused John to suffer from low back and knee pain. To further complicate the issue, the sheriff and John are from a small county where budgets are very tight in employee turnover is almost non-existent. Having been a member of the sheriff's department with a clean record, the only tarnish being the inability to pass a basic physical ability test, the sheriff is unsure how to proceed with John's issue.
Can John be fired due to his inability to safely perform basic tasks of his job? Can John be forced to perform supervised fitness activities and undergo nutritional counseling to bring his fitness back to standards? Should John, as a law enforcement professional, take it upon himself to regain his fitness and wellness? The sheriff even inquired about peer pressure; what if his coworkers tactfully got Jon back in line?
At this point in the discussion other Sheriffs had come up and were all chiming in with similar stories.
- We can't force them to exercise
- Some work out too much and some not at all
- What are the legal issues?
- They are coming out of the academy in poor shape because we have had to lower our fitness standards
Folks, these are difficult scenarios made all the more complicated by legal and union issues that are far out of the scope of this article and my expertise. However, there are some simple things you can do to keep yourself and your brothers/sisters on the street and functioning with proper fitness levels.
The advice I gave to the sheriff in the case of our struggling officer named John was simple in its effectiveness.
Number one is to appeal to John professionally. John sees himself every day in the mirror, and he knows that his uniform no longer fits like it used to. John also knows that he is having difficulty performing his job and subsequently endangering his coworkers. The law enforcement professional who has been crafted by years on the street, when appealed to, will more times than not admit that they have a problem and are in need of help. Our appeal to John must be done in such a way that no threat is perceived so that John has the ability to openly discuss the issue at hand.
Number two, is to utilize resources at your disposal, such as local fitness professionals, athletic trainers, physical therapists, and nutritionists. Often these professionals will gladly counsel and teach officers that are in need of some help (admittedly, some of them will want to be paid, but their cost may well be a good investment in the future of a career). Many counties have employee health organizations that can be utilized as well.
Number three (as an option) is to start and run an injury prevention and wellness program. The beauty of a law enforcement specific program is the simple fact that once a program is in place, and provided it has a fitness standard or protocol built in, it can become your department's fitness standard. At this point utilization of incumbent officers and senior staff to reinforce the benefits of the program will over time create and instill a culture of fitness and wellness throughout your department. As new employees enter the ranks they will step into an organization that has a clear and followed fitness and wellness culture.
As we discussed john and his issues, both personal and professional, it became apparent to the Sheriff that John had become a liability to the department and to the citizens he swore to protect. Sadly John's inability to perform his job leaves the sheriff's office open to all sorts of legal issues not to mention the associated health care costs of keeping John on the payroll and on the street. We even discussed pulling john off the street into a different roll but in such a small department that was not an option and still does not solve the problem. As a dear friend of mine who has been in the public safety arena for the better part of 20 years once told me, "My job is to solve problems and ensure that the people in my community are safe. I should never be the problem."