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LAW ENFORCEMENT : New York City Thins Its Ranks of Paunchy Police : Declining fitness standards have led to more corpulent cops. NYPD tries to keep officers from reaching for their doughnuts.

October 11, 1994|JOHN J. GOLDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — The sight was so painful that Police Commissioner William Bratton viewed the videotape for just a moment before ordering it turned off. A group of police academy trainees was trying to climb a five-foot-high wall. But they were so out of shape that none could make it over.

Some New York City police officers are so weak that they very well may be unable to pull the trigger of their service revolver, department personnel specialists say. The alternative in a shootout: Duck? Run for cover? Shout "Bang, bang?"

The enemy is not muggers or murderers but the munchies--doughnuts, danish and other high-fat foods--which, when combined with stress and a sedentary lifestyle, can produce paunchy police.

The problem is not limited to New York. In recent years, because of equal opportunity laws, emphasis on diversity and civil service regulations, fitness standards to enter many police academies have declined. Once an officer is appointed to the force, union contracts and civil service rules often preclude police chiefs from keeping cops in shape.

"Once you have been accepted in the civil service and in the strong unions that are in place, it's almost impossible to force officers to solve their weight problems," said Gerald Arenberg, executive director of the National Assn. of Police Chiefs.

How out of shape are some police? One study, Arenberg said, looked at who was in the best condition--police officers, firefighters or a group of convicts. The prisoners finished first. The firefighters second.

Fitness entrance standards at New York's police academy eroded so badly during the late 1980s that they had become almost nonexistent.

If a recruit failed physical training, no problem. Punishment consisted of being banned from attending graduation ceremonies at Madison Square Garden and perhaps an additional month of working out in the academy's gym.

If the rookie still couldn't make the grade, no problem. The officer was sent to a precinct anyway.

One result of this policy shows up in statistics. Line-of-duty injuries are running about 14,000 a year.

And just why do so many police eat so much?

"It is a feeling of loss of control in the job. It is reflected not only in eating but in alcohol abuse and the suicide rate and family disturbances," said Harvey Schlossberg, a clinical psychologist for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey who has treated many police officers.

"One feels helpless in controlling one's environment. The one thing I can control is I can eat what I want and no one can stop me. . . . Eating is comforting. It is secure."

Much of police work is sporadic, with periods of high physical activity interspersed with stretches of boredom.

"What do you do between calls? You eat," Schlossberg said. "You go for the quick-to-go foods, which are high in fat content and sugar and super-duper calories. Because of the anxiety, you are in a state of readiness. You always anticipate something happening, and that makes you hungry, increases your need for blood sugar. You are always snacking something or chewing something."

Physicians say obesity can reduce respiratory capacity and cause cardiovascular complications. It can lead to a variety of orthopedic injuries, including lower back pain.

Against this background enters Bratton, who was appointed commissioner by New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani when he took office this year. Bratton's predecessor, Raymond Kelly, began the process of firming up the force of 28,000. But the effort has accelerated.

It took Bratton only a moment to register his disgust at the videotape of a group of rookies at the bottom of the academy class. Not only did it show the would-be cops unable to climb the wall, but it also revealed recruits unable to finish a 1 1/2-mile run and do simple exercises such as sit-ups. The commissioner ordered recruits who had excess body fat to report to a hospital for more precise screening. More than a dozen failed and were fired for being unable to meet academy standards. They have filed lawsuits, which are pending.

Entrance requirements to the academy also have been toughened. The new test measures body fat vs. muscle tissue, aerobic stamina and trigger-pulling ability, among other things.

"All officers have to go through training every six months to fire a gun," said Sgt. John Enterno. "However, there are some officers who consistently have problems. Every year when they come back, they do not have the necessary strength, and they have to work their hand up to the ability to pull the trigger the requisite number of times."

Still, in times of stress, hunger gnaws. One officer, during the overnight shift when most restaurants are closed, became so famished he chewed up a bouillon cube he found in his patrol car.

"What did it taste like?" other police officers asked. "Ten chickens," the cube-chomping cop said.

Getting Fit

Here are the three main requirements that applicants must pass before admission into the police academy.

Body composition

The NYPD's minimum standard is: For men: 22.2% body fat For women: 29.2% body fat Cardiovascular endurance: Candidates must run 1 1/2 miles in 16 minutes and 48 seconds. Trigger pull: Candidates must be able to pull the trigger of a revolver 16 times with arms fully extended and without support from the other hand.

Source: New York Polic Department

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