Police recognize value of staying in shape, even if schedule makes it difficult
by Cameron Steele
Apr 15, 2012 | 6770 views | 19 19 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Anniston Police officers Derrick Kirby and Emily Randles stretch before they run at McClellan. (Anniston Star photo by Stephen Gross)
Anniston Police officers Derrick Kirby and Emily Randles stretch before they run at McClellan. (Anniston Star photo by Stephen Gross)
JACKSONVILLE — Duff Manners used to be in shape. The Jacksonville police officer ran two miles every day, could hold his own in a foot chase and wrestle a suspect to the ground with the best of them.

At 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, Manners was a big guy when the Police Department hired him in 1983. But he was solid: His weight came from playing defensive tackle in high school. He easily passed the series of physical tests required to join the force.

Now, 29 years later and 130 pounds heavier, Manners said he’d probably fail those tests. Sometime during his career, Manners stopped exercising and running. He gained weight, began to have issues with his knees and back.

“I wish I could go back to those days,” the 52-year-old officer said of his younger, fitter years. “When you first start in police work, you’re a go-getter. Nowadays, you pick and choose your battles.”

A national problem

Manners’ battle against weight gain is just one of many individual stories highlighting what officials call a major health issue for law enforcement officers today. As obesity rises among the general American population, studies show the number of police officers who are overweight and obese is rising too. A recent survey by the Journal of the American Medical Association of officers across the country showed that 33.6 percent were considered obese, meaning they have body mass indexes of more than 30 percent. Nearly 80 percent of the 5,000 officers who participated in the study were overweight, the research shows.

In Calhoun County, officials at the Anniston, Jacksonville and Oxford police departments said they didn’t have specific statistics on police weight and fitness.

But they estimated about 10 percent of the officers on their respective forces are overweight or obese. It’s a problem that leads to a variety of other health issues — including higher rates for high blood pressure, sleep apnea and cardiovascular disease. It also can make it difficult — and more dangerous — for officers to do their jobs.

“It’s hard to stay motivated to work out,” said Oxford police Chief Bill Partridge. “But it’s important: You have to think about your own health and safety on the job.”

A safety issue

In October 2010, a Calhoun County Jail inmate escaped from his hospital room at Regional Medical Center. In the days after the incident, Sheriff Larry Amerson told The Star that the injured inmate’s ability to outrun the deputy and corrections officer guarding him underscored why officers need to stay in shape.

“It’s a safety issue,” Anniston Lt. Allen George agreed recently. He oversees training and recruitment at the Anniston department. “You can go from sedentary to an all-out fight for your life in half a second — and be looking for somebody for hours and hours.”

Overweight, out-of-shape officers have harder times chasing people on foot, restraining unruly suspects and responding quickly to emergencies, local police said. Manners, who now serves as Jacksonville police’s school resource officer, said he couldn’t keep up in a foot chase anymore.

“If a guy’s going to take off and run, he’s going to take off and run,” he said.

A new recruit must pass a series of physical tests set by the Alabama Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission before becoming a sworn police officer. The requirements include running a mile and a half in 15 minutes, completing 22 push-ups in 60 seconds, 25 sit-ups in that same amount of time and running across a balance beam. Recruits also have to finish an obstacle course that requires them to drag a dummy weighing 165 pounds, shimmy through a window, climb a 6-foot high wall and push a car 15 feet.

It’s a good test, officials say, which helps to ensure new officers are capable of performing some of the essential functions of the job.

“Therefore, obesity is low upon admission,” said Rana Parker, a dietician for the Los Angeles Police Department.

Lack of standards

Parker noted the LAPD and most U.S. law enforcement agencies also have fitness standards for police recruits. But the state of Alabama doesn’t require periodic fitness evaluations for officers once they have passed that first test. That follows a national trend among law enforcement agencies, according to Parker and several scientific studies.

Parker calls it problematic: The absence of ongoing fitness checks makes it easier for police to develop unhealthy habits, leading them to gain weight. And that, in turn, leads to those safety issues on the job.

“We probably should have one, when you look at some of our older officers and what they have to get out on the streets and do, ” Jacksonville police Chief Tommy Thompson said, referring to the idea of a state law requiring officers to maintain weight standards.

Officials in Oxford and Jacksonville agreed. But none of the three departments has issued its own administrative orders to establish annual fitness checks.

For his part, Thompson said it’s a logistical issue. He doesn’t want to require officers to take time out of their workday to work out.

“You don’t want to take them off the road to do something else,” the Jacksonville chief said.

Amerson said he tells his employees they can spend up to 20 minutes of their time on the clock working out, hoping they’ll contribute some of their own time as well.

Amerson said he’s attempted unsuccessfully in the past to get the County Commission to pay $100 monthly incentives to deputies and corrections officers who meet certain fitness standards.

“Agencies across the country who’ve tackled the problem have found that the carrot approach is much better than the stick,” Amerson said.

Not just the doughnuts

The image of the portly police officer and his jelly doughnut is an old one, but the real issue is more complicated, Parker said. Years of working irregular hours, eating meals at 24-hour fast food joints and sitting in patrol cars are some of the factors that contribute to officers’ burgeoning waist bands, she said.

“While most people can somewhat plan what and when they will eat, law enforcement officers may not know when their next meal is coming,” Parker said. “They overeat to compensate for long stretches without food.”

Many local police refuse to touch doughnuts while in uniform, just to avoid that nagging stereotype. But they say it’s hard to keep away from places like McDonald’s and Waffle House when working night shifts with just 30 minutes for meal breaks.

Working out is another story altogether, Anniston Lt. Fred Forsythe said. Many young patrol officers work multiple jobs, just as he did when he joined the force in 1989.

“Somewhere around my second year here, I had six jobs,” Forsythe said. Between patrolling in his car for 12 hours, and working security at five other local businesses, he said didn’t have the time to hit the gym.

Back in Jacksonville, Manners said he worked a second job when he was younger, too. He came home exhausted most of the time. That left him unmotivated to work out, led him down the path toward obesity.

“You work 45 hours a week on your regular job and then work eight to 10 more on your part-time job,” the Jacksonville corporal said. “And if you’re on third shift, you’re not eating when you’re supposed to eat.”

Parker said officers in her Los Angeles department and across the U.S. are experiencing that fatigue and lack of motivation. Police in Los Angeles often work the same 12-hour shifts that Anniston cops do and often don’t have time to take lunch breaks, she said. Added to the long workday is the high stress that often accompanies a job in law enforcement.

“When an officer is stressed, sleep-deprived and hasn’t eaten for a long time, it makes it difficult to resist eating these (unhealthy) foods,” she said.

Back on track

When Derrick Kirby was outrun in several different foot chases recently, he knew it was time for a change. The 25-year-old Anniston officer has been on the force for five years, and he’s spent the last two as part of a special team — the Street Crimes Unit. Kirby’s desire to successfully apprehend suspects more often at work led him to start running. He and fellow Anniston Investigator Emily Randles began running together in February. At first they could finish only a couple of miles before they needed to walk. Four months later, they run 9 miles several times a week.

“We also use it as a stress relief from work,” Kirby said.

In Jacksonville, Officer Rebecca Kenny also runs to stay fit. The 23-year-old said she ran more before she went to work as a police officer. But her year on the force has made it hard to find the time. Now, she said, she’s lucky if she gets in a 1-mile run once a week.

“You get off your shift and you don’t want to have to do anything,” she said. “It’s hard to be dedicated to it but you have to make yourself.”

You have to make yourself eat right, too, Parker said.

She has tips to do that: Keep healthy food such as carrots and trail mix in the police car; bring lunches from home; research the nutrition information for items on local fast food menus.

Manners plans to start his dieting and exercise regimen this summer. He has a road bike, and he used to ride it all time. Maybe when he starts those rides through White Plains and Alexandria again, he’ll be able to shed some of his 330 pounds. Manners hopes so. In addition to knee and back pain, he suffers from a heart arrhythmia, too.

“My weight doesn’t help that issue,” he said.

Star staff writer Cameron Steele: 256-235-3562. On Twitter @CSteele_Star.
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