Officer shortage renews debate on fitness standards for female recruits

By: - May 18, 2023 6:46 am

Many states and the military set different physical fitness standards for police recruits. New Jersey does not, and some want that to change. (Office of the Attorney General / Tim Larsen)

As an athlete, Heather Glogolich figured she’d have no problem acing the physical fitness test at the police academy, which new recruits must pass to become cops.

But after four knee surgeries, it was a slog.

“I finished dead last, and that’s a big ego killer, if I’m being very honest, especially from somebody who prides themselves on being strong,” she said.

That was 19 years ago, and Glogolich is now a patrol lieutenant in the Morris Township police department and president of New Jersey Women in Law Enforcement.

She has watched with growing interest as state law enforcement officials recently revived a long-brewing debate about whether to ease the fitness requirement for female applicants at the police academy.

The issue is an old one, with lawmakers mulling the matter — and taking no action — during a public hearing in 2019.

But as staffing shortages worsen, recruiting classes shrink, and a gender gap persists among employees of prisons and police departments, some officials have revived their calls for New Jersey to lower the bar for women to be declared physically fit for law enforcement jobs.

Assemblywoman Verlina Reynolds-Jackson (D-Mercer) raised the issue in a recent Assembly budget hearing, after Department of Corrections Commissioner Victoria Kuhn told lawmakers the system has 400 job vacancies officials are struggling to fill. The fitness test weeded out most female applicants, with 76% failing it, Kuhn said.

“Physically, women are different, metabolically they’re different, their bone structures are different,” Reynolds-Jackson told the New Jersey Monitor. “If we adjust the fitness standards for women, it makes it an equal playing field for them.”

A federal monitor overseeing reforms at the troubled Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women also has voiced concerns about its shortage of female correctional officers.

John Cunningham is the administrator of New Jersey’s Police Training Commission, which oversees police academies statewide and sets the fitness test standards. The state Attorney General’s Office declined to make him available for an interview, but office spokesman Daniel Prochilo said the commission “is aware of the issues raised by the New Jersey Department of Corrections and the federal monitor.”

“Those standards have been in place since 2017,” Prochilo said in an email. “The PTC assesses the fitness standards for police recruits on an ongoing basis and is reexamining data and information on this issue.”

Judged by gender

New Jersey is an outlier on the issue. Many states, including every neighboring state, sets different fitness standards by gender. Nationally, the military has had a longstanding policy of judging the combat fitness of male and female recruits differently, while agencies including the U.S. Marshals and Secret Service also set slightly lower fitness targets for women.

Still, as women make strides toward parity elsewhere, gender-normed fitness requirements have proven divisive.

The Army adopted a gender-blind fitness test in 2019, but reversed course after the failure rate of female applicants soared. While Congress recently passed a law pushing the military to establish gender-neutral standards, reported last month that the Army probably won’t tweak its test again.

Gender-normed fitness tests have been legally challenged, but courts typically have upheld them.

Glogolich, both personally and as president of New Jersey Women in Law Enforcement, thinks men and women should have the same fitness requirements.

Morris Township police Lt. Heather Glogolich, left, heads the New Jersey Women in Law Enforcement. Pictured with New Providence Police Officer Carly Bouman, who Glogolich mentored. (Photo courtesy of Heather Glogolich)

“We’ve worked so hard to break into a male-dominated profession, and when you lower standards, you’re just you’re making it harder for us to look as though we belong. And we do belong,” she said.

Besides, she added, “these are minimum standards, and they’re not hard to pass.”

For police trainees to be deemed fit in New Jersey, they must be able to do:

  • A 15-inch vertical jump.
  • 28 sit-ups in a minute.
  • 24 push-ups in a minute.
  • A 300-meter run in 70.1 seconds or less.
  • A 1.5-mile run in 15:55 minutes or less.

Trainees who fail any one of those measures get nine workout sessions to improve and can retest.

Glogolich sees the fitness requirement as a matter of officer safety.

“This is a job. It is not a hobby. And it’s a job where we can get killed,” she said. “There should really be no gender discrimination in regards to how, physically, we should be doing this job, because criminals don’t discriminate against us. They’re gonna come at us the exact same way, whether we’re male or female.”

She added: “We literally are servant leaders. We’re elite, real-life superheroes. There should be expectations of us. And if you don’t work your butt off to get there, then you don’t really want it. If you don’t prepare, then you don’t belong.”

‘Talk a good game’

Only 11%, or about 3,300, of New Jersey’s 31,000 law enforcement officers are women, according to state data, even though they make up about 51% of the state’s population.

The state prisons actually do better on female representation than the profession as a whole in New Jersey — 18% of the nearly 4,700 correctional officers in the state’s adult and juvenile facilities are female, according to the New Jersey Policemen’s Benevolent Association Local 105, which represents correctional officers.

William Sullivan heads that union. He used to play football, so he had no trouble with the fitness test. Still, he regards the standards as “a little antiquated and a little intense, maybe, for our profession.”

“I get it. You don’t want to be unhealthy or have somebody that can’t respond when physical force is needed,” Sullivan said. “But I’m never going to run a mile and a half after somebody. I’m never going to need to do a 15-inch vertical jump.”

Besides, he added, being an effective officer often has more to do with talking than fitness.

“I could run a mile in four minutes, do 100 push-ups and 100 sit-ups and be the most physically fit guy, but I could be the worst person to talk to,” he said. “You can be strong and not know how to control 80 inmates in a room. I can’t be beating them all up. I have to talk a good game. To me, that’s more important than physical fitness.”

Interest in the policing profession has been falling for years, he added. Years ago, police academies would produce four classes of new recruits a year, with about 200 graduates in each class, Sullivan said. That’s fallen to one or two classes a year, with 40 or so graduates each, he added.

“Recruitment is in the dumpers, and a lot of it is people not passing the physical fitness part,” he said.

In December, the state Police Training Commission tweaked its rules to require new recruits to pass the fitness test before entering and completing the 16-week police academy, rather than toward the end, when the test previously was given.

That will reduce how many recruits go through the academy only to fail before graduation, Sullivan said. But he’d still like to see the fitness standards loosened for the same reason as Kuhn.

“I have a staffing crisis, and I need officers,” he said.


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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.