Biometric testing for police officers: Using technology to change culture

By using biometrics, police agencies can radically alter ways to monitor an officer’s health and fitness level


Law enforcement agencies require strict pre-employment physical fitness requirements. These standards must also be improved during a recruit's time in the police academy.

What the public probably doesn’t know is that for most police agencies, after officers have graduated from the police academy, there are little to no physical fitness standards to maintain employment status as a police officer. For example, the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST), doesn’t have a statewide standard to mandate in-service physical fitness; it is left up to agencies. Is this the best way to maintain a healthy police force?

Recent police pension reforms have officers working to at least the age of 57 to realize their full retirement benefits. Not surprisingly, very few agencies track the health and wellness of their aging workforce. Most have few or no minimum physical fitness standards or requirements after being hired. This seems counterintuitive for a profession that requires officers to be in top physical shape to be hired.

Biometric screening is an easy way to obtain a baseline of someone’s individual health.
Biometric screening is an easy way to obtain a baseline of someone’s individual health. (Getty Images)

Could the lack of career physical fitness standards erode the confidence our communities have in their police during a time where the role of law enforcement is in question?

the value of Biometric screening

Biometric screening is an easy way to obtain a baseline of someone’s individual health. By using biometrics, police agencies can radically alter ways to monitor an officer’s health and fitness level.

Biometric health screening is defined as "the measurement of physical characteristics such as height, weight, body mass index, blood pressure, blood cholesterol, blood glucose, and aerobic fitness tests that can be taken at the worksite and used as part of a workplace health assessment to benchmark and evaluate changes in employee health status over time." Using biometrics is an effective way for officers to see their health numbers in real-time. This could be the “golden ticket” to motivate them to prioritize their health and fitness. Combining biometric testing, nutritional education and physical fitness benchmarks creates a framework to allow officers to improve their overall health and mental wellness. This approach has great potential; however, it also must overcome historic norms that work against its implementation.

Obesity and the police

Leading causes for obesity are inactivity, poor eating habits and lack of sleep. While these causes often apply to those in law enforcement, other contributing factors to overweight officers may include:

  • Long periods of sitting;
  • Lack of a consistent physical fitness program;
  • Increased and prolonged periods of stress.  

Remaining sedentary for long periods of time gives rise to other health risk factors that adversely affect police officers. A series of studies showed “that prolonged sedentary time was independently associated with deleterious health outcomes regardless of physical activity.”

A major cause of officers being out of shape is linked to the culture within the walls of the department. Many agencies might say they want their officers to be healthy, but their actions aren’t consistent with that sentiment. If the culture does not prioritize employee health, officers are left on their own to stay fit. Police events and in-house celebrations often involve sugary foods and an excess of simple carbohydrates. This isn’t just making cops unhealthy, it makes them less able to do the job – in fact, it is killing them. Cops are as obese and out of shape as most of the people they serve. It isn’t just unsightly; there are real consequences to police obesity that kill more cops than do the dangers of the job.

Consequences of an unfit police force

Similar to most Americans, heart attacks and cardiovascular disease are usually listed in the top four to five causes of police officer line-of-duty deaths.

In 2012, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) published its initial data on peace officer cardiovascular health. The study examined a 40-year police cohort of 2,593 officers from 1950 to1990. The study found that life expectancy of a police officer is 20 years less than his or her civilian counterpart. It also concluded the average age of suffering a heart attack is 49 years, compared to 67 years of age for the general population; police officers are also 25 times more likely to suffer death and disability from heart disease than from a violent action of a suspect.

According to a 2014 study, police officers in the United States face a 30 to 70 times higher risk of sudden cardiac death when they’re involved in stressful situations as compared to the risks during routine or non-emergency activities. One thing that stood out in the study was that physical training activities, which police officers do not consider particularly stressful, were associated with roughly 20-25 times higher sudden cardiac deaths than other routine law enforcement work.

To help officers achieve peak health and prolong their lives, it is critical to consider ways to incorporate biometric testing into their routines. Biometrics would provide feedback on current health conditions, track the progress of goals to improve health and provide real-time information about health risks.

Using biometrics to track and establish health requirements

Despite its fancy name, biometric testing is really just a mini-physical that can be done where you work, by a nurse or other healthcare technician.

The employee submits a blood sample, either through a blood draw or a finger-prick, and screening measures basic physical characteristics like height, weight, Body Mass Index (BMI), waist circumference, blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol levels.

These numbers provide a snapshot of an individual’s physical condition and can provide a roadmap on what steps can be taken to improve their health. In addition to formal testing, wearable devices such as an Apple watch or Fibit can enhance biometric tracking. These tools can be force multipliers, combining biometric data with the medical information revealed in the blood analysis.

Biometric screening can provide feedback on health conditions of which the officer may be unaware, or indicate their risk for serious illnesses such as diabetes or cardiovascular disease. Probably the biggest asset of biometric screening is that it allows employees and employers to know more about their overall health risks in real time, and then take steps to keep them alive and healthy.

Based on the results from the biometric process, agencies could direct officers to programs to help change their lifestyle and fitness behaviors. The result would be healthier cops less prone to sickness and injuries. If these benefits are so significant, though, why aren’t we already using them?

Roadblocks to success

Several factors impede mandating a minimum fitness level requirement or biometric testing program for the police.

Most agencies do not have a culture that requires officers to stay in shape. Many administrators are also overweight and could not pass a physical fitness test, so it is essentially a non-starter in their organizations.

Police unions may push back on mandatory fitness testing, and many administrations fear on-duty injuries while training or the implications of managing employees who fail to meet the minimum fitness standards.

Furthermore, tracking employee biometrics and using smart technologies come with a cost. Are employers willing to bear these expenses or will they be passed down to the employees?

Another issue frequently discussed is whether agencies would provide on-duty compensation for fitness activities for officers to maintain a certain minimum fitness standard. If an employee is injured while exercising, agencies with formal programs would now also be required to cover those injuries under their worker’s compensation plans.

And are agencies comfortable with the potential of terminating an employee who fails to meet minimum standards?

Other concerns include whether an employer will share or can legally share information with health insurance companies, and if it would negatively affect healthcare premiums. Some employers incentivize their wellness programs by offering lower healthcare premiums for healthy employees who participate. In spite of the obstacles, though, instituting a program that would result in healthier cops doing a better job, and also living decades longer than they do now, is worth the struggle to create.

Recommendations and outcomes

The first step is to change the culture of the organization. Law enforcement agencies could learn from the fire service, where they have successfully incorporated mandatory on-duty workouts to maintain minimum fitness standards.

Many experts recommend when implementing a biometric testing program, they start the process with all newly hired employees. Slowly, after 15-20 years, every employee would be under the new mandated biometric testing program which would change the overall culture of the organization. Incorporating biometric testing would be the first step to creating a robust physical fitness standard within the police organization.

Some agencies have started voluntary fitness programs and offered incentives like more vacation time or reduced healthcare premiums for employees who can meet the minimum health and fitness standards. Many argue that in order to change department culture, agencies should start with a voluntary program and incentivize it. Mandatory programs may lead to resistance and resentment from employees that agencies changed the employment requirements after they were already hired. Agencies are encouraged to consult with and obtain buy in from their employee unions. Without the endorsement of the police unions, many obstacles may lay ahead and lead to a rocky road for implementation of a wellness program.

Instead of maintaining the status quo, police departments could use biometric and fitness technology to monitor a police officer’s health in real time. Police unions may be willing to pay for their members to receive annual biometric testing and sponsor gym memberships. Due to budgetary restrictions, many police agencies have a gym or fitness center that is provided by the police unions and/or from community donations.

Conclusion

Extending required fitness standards after leaving the academy by using a biometrically supported program could retain health, lower sudden cardiac events and extend the life of officers.

Healthy officers increase community confidence and project a sense of professionalism. The image of an overweight police officer walking around with a cup of coffee in one hand and a donut in the other has run its course. To keep the policing profession moving forward, a cultural change within our police departments needs to occur, and physical fitness and employee wellness using biometric screening is a priority.

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