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Women Officers Ae Still a Rarity : 'The Wall' a Tall Barrier to Women

May 10, 1987|RICHARD HOLGUIN

Deborah Brown ran into a brick wall on her way to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Academy.

Like the majority of women, Brown failed her first attempt at the department's physical agility test--the first gauge of physical prowess for many aspiring law enforcement officers in Southeast Los Angeles County.

The 30-year-old Moorpark resident signed up for the remedial training class that the Sheriff's Department began offering in 1980 as a way to help more women pass the test.

"I don't think I got enough speed going up to it (the wall)," Brown said after the recent attempt.

Law enforcement officials say they are wringing their hands trying to get more women officers onto the streets of the Southeast Los Angeles County area, but the physical qualifications of the job present a formidable barrier.

Physical Test Devastating

To be accepted into the Sheriff's Academy, an applicant must pass a written test, a physical agility test, an oral interview and a background check that includes physical, psychological and polygraph tests.

Men and women perform about equally on the written entrance exam, but the physical agility test is devastating for females. Ninety-five percent of male applicants pass the physical agility test on the first attempt, but just 25% to 30% of female applicants are successful, training Deputy Jim Lopez said.

The test is run at the Sheriff's Academy, a converted high school in Whittier.

First there's the balance beam an applicant must walk across. Then it's over "the wall," a 6-foot-high cinder block fence, and through two simulated windows and up and over an 8-foot-high chain-link fence. An arm strength test follows and then an applicant must drag a 165-pound dummy. The applicant, who is saddled with an 8-pound weight, must complete the course in 2 minutes, 50 seconds.

Infamous Wall

Brown, who was wrapped in a purple running suit, started the course and easily negotiated the balance beam. Then she ran toward and tackled the wall. With her hands anchored atop, Brown tried to pull her body over, but rose only inches. She tried again with the same result and quit for the day.

"The wall" is infamous among women. It's where they most frequently fail, officials said.

"Men and women are built differently and they just don't have as much upper body strength. They can't get over the 6-foot wall," said Lopez, who noted that technique can overcome a lack of brute strength. That technique is taught in the department's remedial course.

On a testing day in February, only one of the 23 female applicants passed both the written and physical agility tests, Lopez said. Of the 188 men who tested, 108 were successful.

Once in the Sheriff's Academy, women also fare worse than men.

More Men Graduate

Just over 63% of the 541 women who started the academy from 1981 to 1986 graduated, while 80.7% of the 2,744 men who entered during the same period graduated, according to department statistics. Training Sgt. George Sennatt said the women generally wash out because they cannot meet the physical requirements.

"They have a hard time keeping up and get injured because they're not in shape," Sennatt said. "Our training program is an intense program and if you come in out of shape you're going to get hurt."

The Sheriff's Academy and two others--Rio Hondo College's Regional Training Center in Whittier and the Criminal Justice Training Center at Golden West College in Huntington Beach--train most of the officers in the Southeast area. Long Beach has its own academy.

The passage rate for women is about the same at the Rio Hondo and Golden West centers, spokesmen said. Figures for Long Beach were not available, officials said.

Standards Called Fair

Despite the lower passing rate for females, the women officers interviewed by The Times and a spokeswoman for the Women Peace Officers' Assn. of California, a statewide organization, said the physical standards are fair because they approximate the skills and strengths needed on the job.

Many departments statewide abandoned more difficult physical standards since the 1970s, after courts ruled they unfairly discriminated against women.

"Most of the departments have brought their physical agility tests into line with the requirements of the job," said Lt. Dolores Kan, president of the 500-member group and a member of the Bay Area Rapid Transit Police Department. "It is my opinion, we would not lower standards in order to accommodate any minority group,"

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