The Police Sex-Discrimination Case We Should Be Talking About

shutterstock_56280433In December 2013, Colorado Springs’ Chief of Police Peter Carey introduced a physical abilities test (also known as a PAT) that all officers were required to pass. It involved push-ups, sit-ups and running exercises. The stated goal of the test was to create a “culture of fitness” on the force and to reduce work-related injuries, ostensibly ensuring longer careers for officers. But after 38 percent of the department’s women officers over age 40 failed, some began to question the true intention of the policy.

Twelve decorated policewomen who failed the test were placed on “light duty” as a consequence—they were stripped of their right to wear their uniforms or any police insignia and effectively confined to their desks, resulting in losses in compensation, status and responsibility. They speculated that the test had been designed to get them off the force, especially considering just 2 percent of male officers had failed. Facing possible future termination—a consequence for repeated failure to pass—the women took action: In late April, they filed a sex-discrimination suit against the police department.

In their complaint the officers assert:

The PAT testing protocols adopted by the Colorado Springs Police Department were developed in order to eliminate from the workforce a large number of women over 40. … None of the plaintiffs have ever failed to perform or been unable to perform any of her duties, including making a forcible arrest, because of inadequate upper body or trunk strength [or inadequate running speed].

The officers point to the cut-off score as evidence of sex discrimination in the test’s design; all officers were required to complete each component of the test in the same amount of time to gain a minimum number of points.

“My ability to do 40 push-ups, or my ability to do 40 sit-ups in a set amount of time in no way correlates to my ability to talk to a 6’5 male and have to go hands-on and put handcuffs on him,” said police officer Rebecca Arndt, one of the complainants, in an interview with a local news station. She, like many of the other officers who failed the test, has received many accolades and awards for her excellence in policing but can’t even identify herself as a police officer anymore.

The lawsuit asserts that Colorado Springs Police Department could have—and should have—adopted a fitness test that takes men’s and women’s differing physiologies into consideration.

“Men and women have different physiological characteristics, which result in a different physical ability to perform on three of the four physical abilities tests selected by the Colorado Springs Police Department,” reads the complaint. “[The department] could have adopted other, equally effective cardiovascular fitness tests in order to achieve its stated governmental objective of improving the cardiovascular fitness of police officers, which do not disproportionately impact women over 40.”

Retired ATF officer Margie Moore agrees, saying that most PATs administered by local and federal police departments are “normed” for age, sex and other factors. That means different cut-off scores are established to reflect the comparable abilities of people with different body compositions, while still testing for a level of physical fitness required to work in law enforcement.

“[PATs like the one in Colorado Springs] are an artificial barrier to screen out women,” Moore says. “I think an officer should have basic physical fitness … [But] what’s really important is to [provide good tactical training] and that is taught in the police academy.”

Adds Penny Harrington, former chief of police in Portland, Oregon, “Police departments should spend more time teaching officers how to deescalate violence than teaching them to jump a six-foot wall or do X number of push-ups in a certain number of minutes.” She continues,

There are two types of physical tests: one is a physical agility test and the other one is a job performance-type physical test. … [PATs] have a heavy emphasis on upper body strength—scaling a wall, the push-ups, all of that is upper-body strength—and men have more upper-body strength than women as a rule. The Olympics have different-timed events for women than they do for men, and it’s not because the women aren’t physically fit.

The other type of test, she says, measures an officer’s ability to do the work of policing. In that test, you would, for example, run an obstacle course in a certain number of minutes, lift and drag a dummy or jump in and out of a car.

“Those tests tend to be more fair than the [PATs], which are strictly physical fitness,” Harrington says. “And I wouldn’t have a problem with physical fitness if they gender- and age-normed [the tests]—but they don’t.”

Physical agilities tests have been shown to drastically reduce the number of women on police forces. A study from the National Center for Women and Policing found that agencies that don’t rely on PATs employ more sworn women officers on average than agencies that use PATs (15.8 percent versus 10.9 percent women officers). Women make up about 12 to 13 percent of the Colorado Springs Police Department, according to the lawsuit.

The number of women on a force make a difference: Studies have consistently shown that policewomen use excessive force far less often than policemen, and are more likely to use deescalation techniques to subdue difficult or irate subjects. Given the number of police excessive force cases in the news this year alone, using sex-discriminating PATs like the one in Colorado Springs compromises departments’ abilities to hire and retain more women, which is having a clear negative effect on communities.

“The tragedy of this policy is that some of the best officers in the city have been taken off the street,” said Donna Dell’Olio, one of the lawyers leading the suit. “We couldn’t find another police department in the country that was implementing another policy like this one.”

The goal of the lawsuit is to stop the department from enforcing the PAT as it currently stands, and to obtain monetary damages for the complainants who received reduced pay while on light duty.

“When I am told that because of this physical agility test that I’m not allowed to be the police officer I was the day before I took that test,” said Colorado Springs police officer and complainant Geri Pring, “I feel like I need to stand up and say that’s not the only thing I should be weighed on as far as a police officer goes.”

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Photo via Shutterstock





Stephanie hails from Toronto, Canada. She is a Ms. writer, a master of journalism candidate and a hip hop dancer/instructor/choreographer. She got her start in feminist journalism at the age of 16 when she was a member of the first editorial collective at Shameless magazine—and she has never looked back.