USA TODAY US Edition
FITNESS TESTS EXCLUDE WOMEN FROM NJ POLICE
Attorney general to review training practices after gender gap revealed
“I worked in gangs, narcotics and street crimes for more than 10 years. I’ve never had to do one push-up before putting handcuffs on someone.”
Newark Police Capt. Ivonne Roman
In one year, the rate of women failing police academy physical tests almost tripled after New Jersey imposed a test on recruits that some regard as nearly impossible.
Police academies weren’t always so uneven. Women and men once passed the physical tests at a similar rate.
Women failed up to 13 times as often as men after a little-known state commission told aspiring cops that they had to get stronger within nine workouts or go home.
An investigation by the Asbury Park Press, part of the USA TODAY Network, found 31% of women failed the physical test in 2017, compared with 2% of men.
“That’s news to me,” said James Abbott, police chief in West Orange, one of the 16 members who served on the Police Training Commission when it made the rule change. He said he would discuss the gender gap at the commission’s next meeting in August.
“Now learning from you that there’s a disproportionate amount of females failing versus the
males, that kind of raises some red flags, and I think that should be looked at more closely,” Abbott said. “There should be similar rates of disqualification.”
The USA TODAY Network brought the issue to the attention of the state’s top law enforcement official.
A spokesperson for New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said he convened a working group to study police training practices and he “looks forward” to acting on its recommendations.
That gap between women and men could be the foundation for a class-action lawsuit that might cost the state millions, a law school associate dean told the Network. If New Jersey were a company, the disparity between male and female candidates would prompt concern under federal employment guidelines.
The failure of women at police academies costs the public hundreds of thousands of dollars in squandered resources and exacerbates the state’s low number of female officers.
Law enforcement leaders, including East Orange Police Chief Phyllis Bindi, told the Network they noticed in recent years that women failed police academies at a higher rate than men. The Network analyzed data from the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office – which oversees the Police Training Commission – for the first look at how police recruits pass or fail academies.
New Jersey ranks behind 31 states and the District of Columbia for women participating in law enforcement. At the last count in 2016, one-third of the departments in the state employed no female police officers.
Instead of helping more women earn their badges, the state limited the time for aspiring police recruits to improve their push-ups, sit-ups, jumping and running if they didn’t do well enough on their first attempt. Instead of being trained to grow stronger over the course of about five months in the academy, they get the boot if they haven’t improved two or three weeks after failing their first physical exam.
No one can become significantly stronger in that time, according to Steve Farrell, a senior researcher at the Cooper Institute, which recommends physical tests for cops nationwide.
The cost 123 women their shot at a career in law enforcement.
Grappling with unfit police recruits for years, the Police Training Commission spent at least $300,000 for a consultant to develop a test recruits would take before getting into police academies, according to a commission member.
The Civil Service Commission – which oversees government employment for more than 300 agencies in New Jersey – warned the training commission about recruits appealing their test results and said more data was needed “to determine whether or not there is any disparate impact between male and female potential trainees,” meeting minutes show.
The U.S. Department of Justice sued Pennsylvania State Police, alleging discrimination against women because of a gender disparity in police academies created by physical tests.
“It was basically the same test that we were going to use,” James Sharrock, vice chairman of the New Jersey Police Training Commission, told the Network.
The training commission put the pretest on hold, meeting minutes show. Instead, it established in January 2017 the test and the time limit recruits have to pass it early in the academy.
Under that time limit, the training commission created a gap between the sexes like the one cited in the Pennsylvania lawsuit.
Sharrock said the commission “never would deliberately be disparate.”
He raised the possibility that there were more recruits coming from civil service towns in the years when more women failed. Those towns can’t turn down a candidate for physical fitness reasons before the academy.
“If this article that you’re writing is fair and there’s something we could look at, I’m sure we’re going to look at it,” Sharrock said.
Dan Colucci, another member of the commission, introduced the idea of testing recruits early in the academy, meeting minutes show.
He said recruits should come to the academy prepared.
“This is not a health spa where we’re going to take you from not being able to do anything to making you physically fit,” Colucci said.
In New Jersey, police recruits are expected to do these exercises:
❚ A vertical jump of 15 inches.
❚ 28 sit-ups in one minute.
❚ A 300-meter run in 70.1 seconds or less.
❚ 24 push-ups in one minute.
❚ A 1.5-mile run in 15:55 minutes or less.
Benefits of women officers
Experts said female police officers tend to use less force than men and can be better communicators.
Newark Police Capt. Ivonne Roman, a former police chief, said she knew a female detective with a knack for coaxing suspects into providing information. One interview with a suspect, she recalled, helped solve two murders.
“It was just simply by having a conversation, not coming across threatening at all,” Roman said. “I think that can work for men or for women. It just seems like a style that comes more naturally to women.”
Out of more than 460 police departments in New Jersey, there are 11 female chiefs, according to the state association of police chiefs.
There should be more, Bindi said. “We bring a different set of skill sets to the leadership of policing,” she said.
State data shows men passed New Jersey’s police academies at a higher rate than women every year since 2009.
More than 9,800 men applied to New Jersey police academies from 2009 through 2018, compared with 1,460 women. Looking at those years together, 91% of men graduated compared with 66% of women.
Women used to fail physical tests at a rate similar to men.
From 2009 through 2014, the rate for women failing academy physical tests hovered around 2%-4%, compared with less than 1% for men.
There was a spike in 2015 for unclear reasons. Twelve percent of women failed the physical test in 2015 compared with 3% the year before. The failure rate for men remained unchanged, about 1%.
Three members of the police training commission said they didn’t recall a change to physical testing rules in 2015. Meeting minutes show changes to the curriculum for police recruits in 2015 but not the physical testing procedure.
New Jersey failed many women in 2017 and 2018.
After the state cut the time recruits have to get stronger, women failed the physical test at 31% in 2017 and 18% in 2018, compared with about 2% in both years for men.
The cost of failing women
The failure of female police recruits at a disproportionate rate is costly for recruits and New Jersey taxpayers.
The state spent at least $246,000 on women who failed physical tests in 2017 and 2018, according to state data and an estimate by one town that it costs $2,000 to send someone to the police academy. Recruits earn a nominal salary and go through several taxpayerfunded tests before they get to the stage where they’d be told they can’t do enough push-ups.
The failed recruits can lose thousands of dollars themselves. They might quit jobs for police training, and some are required to buy uniforms that, if they fail, they’ll never use again.
The biggest expense could come in the form of a class-action lawsuit against the state.
The gap between men and women passing the physical test is enough to establish a foundation for a legal claim of gender discrimination, according to Charles Sullivan, senior associate dean at Seton Hall University School of Law. Sullivan estimated the cost for the government to defend such a lawsuit would start at about $50,000 and could cost taxpayers $2 million.
That legal showdown would hinge on whether New Jersey could show why it’s necessary to limit the time recruits have to get stronger.
Sullivan was skeptical. “What’s the business necessity?” he asked. “Doesn’t seem like there would be any business necessity for reducing the amount of time.”
What do other states do?
There’s debate about whether recruits should have to do push-ups to become sworn officers.
Add a bench press to New Jersey’s police recruit fitness standards, and they would match the standards promoted to law enforcement for three decades by the Cooper Institute, a Dallasbased health research nonprofit group.
At least 31 other states use some or all of the Cooper exercises, according to a national review conducted by undergraduate researchers from the College of New Jersey in cooperation with the USA TODAY Network. Fourteen states use obstacle courses similar to challenges officers might face on patrol, such as climbing over a fence or dragging a dummy that weighs as much as a person.
Across the country, state policies on the timing of physical tests range widely. Some states have no standard. Some states test recruits before they enter the academy. Recruits in some states get the duration of the academy to grow stronger. Some states don’t allow a retest if the recruit fails on their first attempt.
Roman, the former Newark police chief, questioned whether push-ups are necessary for police work.
“I’ve been a police officer for 24 years,” she said. “I worked in gangs, narcotics and street crimes for more than 10 years. I’ve never had to do one push-up before putting handcuffs on someone.”
Cooper Institute researcher Steve Farrell said the exercises it recommends – including push-ups – were scientifically validated to be a legitimate test of the upper body strength necessary for police work such as wrestling a suspect.
Farrell and Roman were skeptical of New Jersey’s time limit on police recruits.
“If you are substantially far away from the passing standard, there’s no way in heck that you could significantly improve your fitness level in just two weeks,” Farrell said.
He estimated someone would need four to six weeks to significantly change their muscular strength and about eight weeks for cardio.
A chance at her dream job
Erica Hicks is fighting to be a cop. She lives with her mom, unemployed while she works out daily.
After she was booted from the barracks of the state academy for corrections officers in March, she set her sights on being an officer in Irvington, her hometown.
She said she was hired by the town, and she plans to attend the police academy in September. She jogs through a park near her home every morning. The running portion of the test is a killer, she said.
She said she thinks she’s ready. “I have to pass this test,” she said. This story was produced as part of a fellowship with the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Reporting assistance was provided by undergraduate researchers from the College of New Jersey under the guidance of Assistant Professor David Mazeika: Alexis Depew, Daryl Hoehne, Kyle Maliniak and Angela Meneghin.