COLUMN: Policing isn't all about strength
Twelve female police officers of the Colorado Springs Police Department have won an important victory in their federal civil rights case claiming discrimination. The case is based on a flawed physical abilities test (PAT) administered by the department in 2014. Then-Chief Peter Carey ordered all sworn officers to pass a test developed in 2009 by Human Performance Systems of Beltsville, Md., or face losing their jobs.
The women claimed that the test illegally favored male police officers and created a "disparate impact" on female officers, particularly those over age 40.
Federal District Court Judge Richard Matsch agreed last week and ruled that "as the exclusive standard for determining whether an incumbent officer is fit for regular duty violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964."
What was particularly unusual about the test was that according to Judge Matsch "The Department's use of the PAT for termination of employment is without precedent."
While such tests are widely used to screen applicants for hiring, Matsch wrote, "Discouraging women from applying for employment is quite different from the fear of losing the job you have had for years because you can't do these exercises according to the scoring system used. The plaintiffs are incumbent officers who have been performing their duties satisfactorily as shown by their evaluation reports... To retroactively impose that requirement on women who have invested their lives as career police officers is fundamentally unfair."
As a society we have decided that equality in representation of women in our workforce, including difficult, dangerous and strenuous jobs like law enforcement and firefighting is a social good. That necessity requires us to accept qualified persons without undue discrimination if they are able to perform the essential skills of their individual jobs.
In this case, the women were all state-certified police officers who had been with the department for years and had done their various jobs well. It is true that street patrol officers are more likely to need strength, speed and agility skills in daily duties than detectives or supervisors. Requiring patrol officers to pass physical tests is not per se discriminatory. In 2014, 96 percent of all officers, male and female, passed the mandatory test. All 12 of the plaintiffs failed their first attempt, but nine of them successfully passed on subsequent attempts. Only three of the female plaintiffs failed completely.
Of men and women over 40, 97 percent of men passed but only 67 percent of women did so. In applicant screening tests in 2013, 50 percent of females failed while only 6 percent of males did so. According to Matsch, this is "significant" and is "evidence of adverse impact on women."
While it is a biological fact that women are usually physically weaker than men, that in no way means that they cannot be just as effective as male police officers in all but the most severe tests of strength and endurance. We accept the biology but discard the implication that only the fittest and strongest are qualified to police our communities.
Women enhance our police departments in ways apart from pure physical strength. Like other minorities, they are important to representing the female perspective in law enforcement. Their ability to relate to women and children in crisis is neither superior nor inferior to their male counterparts - just different. Diversity in the police department's ability to connect with citizens is important.
Policing is not all about wrestling PCP-stoked suspects to the ground. It is about teamwork and utilizing the unique skills and abilities of every officer to augment the overall objective of serving and protecting the public. As Sir Robert Peel, the founder of the London Metropolitan Police wrote in 1829, the duty of the police is "To recognize always that the power of the police to fulfill their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behavior, and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect."
Demolishing discriminatory barriers that keep our police force from being representative of the community it serves is an entirely worthy goal, and is the law. Too narrow a focus on an admittedly important goal of strength and fitness to the exclusion of other demonstrated skills and abilities doesn't serve the public well.
Readers can contact Scott Weiser at firstname.lastname@example.org.