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The duties and responsibilities of police officers can place them in harm’s way while they defend the public from criminals. The nature of the job requires officers sometimes to conquer extreme physical challenges to enforce the law. Unlike most employers, police departments can impose strict physical qualifications for candidates who want to serve on their force. Physical qualifications cover virtually every portion of a recruit’s body, from limbs to vital organs. In the end, the tough requirements serve to prevent on-the-job tragedies such as injuries, deaths and officer-involved shooting accidents.
Physical Requirements to Become a Police Officer
Police departments impose strict physical requirements to qualify for admission to their police academies and to enter the police force.
Police departments require officers to have good vision and have the ability to perceive color correctly. Vision requirements exist to protect officers from harm, to prevent them from mistakenly harming other people, and to ensure that they can provide correct information when they appear on the witness stand in court.
A vision qualification does not demand perfect vision, but it typically requires candidates to have 20/20 vision with correction from glasses or contact lenses. Most candidates must pass a Snellen vision test. The test uses letters or numbers of varying sizes, which the examinee must identify correctly. Candidates may also be required to submit to an Ishihara test, which tests a person’s red-green color perception. Prospective police officers must be free of serious eye diseases, such as glaucoma, which could impair or diminish their vision.
A police officer must have good hearing to distinguish vocal commands, decipher information transmitted from dispatch, and listen to the comments of crime victims and suspects. Typically, a recruit who needs a hearing aid cannot qualify for a job as a police officer.
Many police departments test recruits using an audiometer. The machine tests the candidate’s ability to hear sounds at different frequencies. Examiners determine whether the candidate passes or fails the hearing test based on criteria established by the International Standards Organization.
Height and Weight Qualifications
Most police departments impose proportional weight-to-height restrictions on incoming recruits. For example, a police department might stipulate that a candidate who stands 5 feet, 7 inches tall must weigh at least 140 pounds but not more than 180 pounds. Often, such regulations have different height and weight standards for men and women.
Police officer height and weight requirements apply to recruits and new police officers. If a recruit is overweight or underweight, some police academies might give the candidate an opportunity to correct the problem. In such cases, the candidate must lose or gain the required amount of weight by the end of the training session.
Muscular and Skeletal System Qualifications
Police officers must have the ability to respond to emergencies with physical agility. In many police departments, candidates with certain physical disabilities cannot qualify for general duty police work. Usually, disabilities that affect the legs, feet, hands or arms disqualify a recruit. Likewise, chronic joint or muscle conditions may disqualify a candidate.
Police candidates must pass a physical examination before they can qualify for training. Usually, doctors take the recruit’s written health history and look for conditions such as arthritis, flat feet, missing toes and bone abnormalities during the physical examination. In some departments, a recruit can qualify with missing fingers, as long as no more than one digit is missing per hand.
During the physical examination, the doctor might take X-rays to look for signs of misaligned joints, curvature of the spine or dislocated vertebrae.
Circulation and Respiratory Qualifications
To qualify for recruitment, a candidate must have a healthy circulatory system. Conditions such as varicose veins and hardening of the arteries typically disqualify a candidate. Likewise, police recruits cannot qualify if they have health problems such as asthma, emphysema or other respiratory conditions that could affect their breathing.
During the physical examination, doctors usually take chest X-rays to look for damaged or diseased lungs. They also take the candidate’s blood pressure to determine if the recruit has hypertension. Typically, a candidate must have a systolic blood pressure of 90 to 140 and a diastolic pressure of 95 or lower. The examiner listens to the heart to screen for a heart murmur or irregular heartbeat. Serious or progressive heart, lung or circulation conditions usually disqualify a police recruit.
Mouth, Nose and Teeth Qualifications
Certain mouth, nose or teeth conditions can disqualify a police recruit temporarily or permanently. If the candidate has a condition such as a sinus infection or strep throat, the doctor may deem the candidate temporarily disqualified until the condition heals. However, serious conditions such as a deviated nasal septum may lead to permanent disqualification. Gum disease may also disqualify a candidate because it could be a symptom of future heart disease. Some police departments accept recruits who wear dentures.
Hernia and Rectum Qualifications
Candidates with a history of hernias typically cannot qualify for the police force. In some cases, a police department might consider a candidate with a hernia if the candidate agrees to undergo corrective surgery. However, people who experience repeated occurrences of the condition can become a potential liability for active-duty police work.
Rectal conditions such as cysts or hemorrhoids often disqualify police candidates. In some instances, a police department might reconsider a recruit after the condition heals naturally or after the problem is resolved through surgery.
Police recruiters look for candidates who can physically react to situations in a timely and coordinated manner. Recruits with poor reaction timing or inadequate precision cannot qualify for police duty.
Skin and Appearance Qualifications
In some instances, a police department might disqualify a recruit for chronic skin conditions such as severe psoriasis or eczema. Such conditions may lead to chronic sick leave or might interfere with citizens’ ability to interact with the officer comfortably.
Since police officers must work closely with the public, police departments prefer candidates who maintain good hygiene and a neat appearance. Often, recruits who appear physically unfit do not qualify for police service.
Nervous System and Substance Use Qualifications
Police candidates with nervous system disorders such as seizures or epilepsy cannot qualify for service.
A candidate with a history of drug or alcohol abuse cannot qualify for the police force.
During a recruit’s physical examination, medical staff members typically perform numerous tests. The candidate must submit to a urine test to screen for conditions such as renal diabetes or albuminuria. The blood test can detect conditions such as infection, cancer or venereal diseases. Major conditions such as syphilis or HIV often disqualify a police candidate.
Physical Ability Tests
Police officer candidates must pass a physical ability test (PAT) to qualify for the force. Most PATs include traditional exercises such as situps, running, chin-ups, high jumps and pushups. The PAT may also include muscular tension tests, which involve lifting, pushing and pulling an object, or power and endurance tests that gauge the candidate’s ability to work with tools against heavy resistance. Endurance testing may involve long runs or climbing stairs. PATs often include exercises such as climbing a ladder or flexibility tests that involve twisting and bending.
PAT examiners often use electronic fitness machines to gauge the candidate’s abilities. Machines such as treadmills or exercise bikes equipped with monitoring devices can produce a record of the recruit’s performance.
The strenuous nature of PATs helps police departments eliminate recruits who cannot meet the physical challenges of active duty. The United States Capitol Police PATs focus on tasks that measure a candidate’s ability to perform similar functions on the job. First, the recruit must kneel and assume a position that mimics pointing a gun at a suspect. Then, the candidate must rise and run through a series of cones that extend a distance of nearly 400 feet before running up and down three flights of stairs multiple times. Without stopping to rest, the recruit must then drag the dead weight of a 165-pound rescue dummy, followed by a shooting simulation exercise using a real gun.
San Francisco Police Academy PATs include handgrip exercises that measure the force of a candidate’s grip using a dynamometer. The program also includes traditional ability exercises such as situps and pushups, along with wall -climbing challenges.
The Indiana Law Enforcement Academy measures the performance of recruits according to entry standards, which they must improve upon before they exit the program. For example, incoming candidates must perform at least 24 situps in one minute, run a 1.5-mile course in under 19 minutes and run 300 meters in about 82 seconds. At the end of the PAT, candidates must perform at least 29 situps in one minute, run the 1.5-mile course in under 16.5 minutes and run the 300-meter dash in about 71 seconds.
Continuing Fitness Requirements
Until recently, many police departments only imposed physical requirements on new police recruits. This led to an epidemic of obese and unfit police officers that mirrored the obesity problems of the general population. A study conducted by the Cooper Institute of Aerobics Research revealed that many police officers were less fit than the civilians they served. In the past, many police officers worked on foot in neighborhoods, but now most of them work from automobiles, which has led to a more sedentary work life.
Many police forces have implemented health and fitness programs to remedy the obesity and fitness problem. Some police departments also impose physical requirements on all active duty officers.
About Police Officer Careers
Police officers patrol neighborhoods, business areas and public properties and respond to calls reporting criminal activities or other types of emergencies. Some police officers enforce traffic laws, while others serve warrants and arrest fugitives. Police detectives investigate crimes such as murders and assaults, collecting evidence, interviewing witnesses and questioning suspects. Police officers often appear in court to testify as witnesses during criminal trials.
In addition to meeting physical qualifications, police officers must be U.S. citizens. Most police departments accept only candidates who are 21 years of age or older. Typically, police departments do not accept candidates who have felony convictions. Recruits must submit to background checks and drug and alcohol tests.
Educational requirements for police officers vary by department. Some police departments require officers to hold at least a bachelor’s degree, while others accept job candidates who have earned a high school diploma. Many federal law enforcement agencies require recruits to have a college degree and an educational background in specific subjects. For example, the U.S. Fish and Game Service prefers candidates who have completed coursework in subjects such as biology and resource management.
Many police departments operate training academies that prepare recruits with classroom courses, fitness programs and hands-on exercises. Coursework in training academies often includes topics such as civil rights, criminal law and ethics.
Some police departments actively recruit officer candidates who have special educational skills or personal traits. For example, cities with large Hispanic populations recruit officers who speak Spanish. Cities with large LGBT communities often recruit gay and lesbian candidates.
In 2017, police officers earned a median wage of around $63,000 according to a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics study. Top earners took home more than $100,000. From now until 2026, the BLS expects job opportunities for police officers to increase by around 7 percent.
- Wright State University Criminal Justice Program: General Physical Requirements for Applicants Seeking an Occupational Career in Municipal, County or State Law Enforcement
- Norwich University: Physical Fitness Requirements for Police Officers
- U.S. Office of Personnel Management: Physical Ability Tests
- United States Capitol Police: Police Officer Training - Preparing for the Physical Abilities Test
- San Francisco Police Department: Physical Ability Test
- Indiana Law Enforcement Academy: Physical Fitness Standards
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Police and Detectives
Michael Evans’ career path has taken many planned and unexpected twists and turns, from TV sports producer to internet project manager to cargo ship deckhand. He has worked in numerous industries, including higher education, government, transportation, finance, manufacturing, journalism and travel. Along the way, he has developed job descriptions, interviewed job applicants and gained insight into the types of education, work experience and personal characteristics employers seek in job candidates. Michael graduated from The University of Memphis, where he studied photography and film production. He began writing professionally while working for an online finance company in San Francisco, California. His writings have appeared in print and online publications, including Fox Business, Yahoo! Finance, Motley Fool and Bankrate.