Erica Hicks left a comfortable job to fulfill her dream of becoming a New Jersey police officer.
“I want to give back to my community,” she says. “I want to protect and serve.”
But thanks to a new fitness test imposed by a little-known state commission, the odds for her success have considerably decreased.
The new test, requiring aspiring cops to prove they can meet fitness requirements within an abbreviated period of time, has created standards that some experts say are almost impossible to meet—and has exacerbated the state’s low national ranking for women in law enforcement, according to an investigation by the Asbury Park Press and USA TODAY NETWORK.
Hicks, who failed the test on her first try, is training hard to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
But in just one year, since the rule created by the New Jersey Police Training Commission was enacted, New Jersey almost tripled the rate of women failing police academy physical tests.
Police abuses routinely make headlines across the country and prompt demand for reform.
Although women cops are known to use less force, police departments nationwide have struggled for decades to recruit them.
But some states, like New Jersey, are doing worse than others.
Louisiana has the greatest representation of women in law enforcement with more than 22 percent, according to 2016 FBI figures. West Virginia trails the nation at 3.82 percent.
In at least 13 states, females represent 8 percent or less of total law enforcement personnel.
Editor’s Note: An interactive map showing the percentage of women in U.S. police departments is available here.
The Garden State’s police academies weren’t always so uneven. Women and men once passed the physical tests at a similar rate.
But in the wake of the new fitness requirement, New Jersey falls behind 32 states and Washington, D.C. for women working as cops.
Police recruit data from New Jersey– revealed for the first time by the USA TODAY NETWORK investigation – shows how a time limit on recruits becoming stronger had a deeply negative impact for women in police academies.
One third of the police agencies in the state employed no women at the last count in 2016.
The Network found 31 percent of women failed the New Jersey physical test in 2017, compared to 2 percent of men.
In response to the gender gap unearthed by the investigation, a member of the state commission conceded another look at the fitness requirements might be necessary.
“That’s news to me,” said James Abbott, police chief in West Orange, N.J., and one of the 16 members on the commission when they made the rule change
“Now learning from you that there’s a disproportionate amount of females failing versus the males, that kind of raises some red flags, and I think that should be looked at more closely,” Abbott said.
“There should be similar rates of disqualification.”
The USA TODAY NETWORK found policies for police recruit physical testing range widely between states.
New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, whose office released the police recruit data, convened a working group to study police training practices. A spokesperson said he “looks forward” to acting on their recommendations.
That gap between women and men is the foundation for a potential class-action lawsuit that could cost New Jersey taxpayers millions, a law school associate dean told the Network.
If New Jersey were a company, the disparity between male and female candidates would prompt concern under federal employment guidelines. Forcing women from police academies cost the public hundreds of thousands of dollars in squandered resources, the Network found. The practice cost 123 women their shot at a career in law enforcement.
New Jersey Law enforcement leaders, including East Orange Police Chief Phyllis Bindi, told the Network they noticed in recent years that women failed police academies at a higher rate than men.
Instead of helping more women earn their badges, the Police Training Commission limited the time for aspiring police recruits to improve their push-ups, sit-ups, jump and run if they couldn’t do well enough on their first attempt.
Instead of being trained to grow stronger over the course of about five months in the academy, they get the boot if they haven’t improved about two or three weeks after failing their first physical exam.
According to Steve Farrell, a senior researcher at The Cooper Institute, which recommends physical tests for cops nationwide, no one can become significantly stronger in that time.
The Police Training Commission created a problem they were trying to avoid.
Grappling with unfit police recruits in years past, the training commission spent at least $300,000 for a consultant to develop a test recruits would take before getting into police academies, according to a commission member.
But the Civil Service Commission – which oversees government employment for more than 300 agencies in New Jersey – warned the training commission about recruits appealing their test results, and said more data was “needed to determine whether or not there is any disparate impact between male and female potential trainees,” meeting minutes show.
Pennsylvania Police Sued Over Gender Disparity
Then the U.S. Department of Justice sued Pennsylvania State Police alleging discrimination against women because of a gender disparity in police academies created by physical tests.
“It was basically the same test that we were going to use,” James Sharrock, vice chairman of the New Jersey Police Training Commission, told the Network.
So the training commission put the pre-test on hold, meeting minutes show. Instead, they established in January 2017 the test and time limit that kicks out recruits early in the academy.
But under that time limit, the training commission created a gap between the sexes like the one cited in the Pennsylvania lawsuit.
Sharrock said the commission “never would deliberately be disparate.”
Dan Colucci, another member of the commission who, meeting minutes show, introduced the idea of testing recruits early in the academy, said recruits should come to the academy prepared.
“This is not a health spa where we’re going to take you from not being able to do anything to making you physically fit,” Colucci said.
Female police officers tend to use less force than men, three experts interviewed by the Network explained. Female officers can be better communicators, four experts said, so they’re more likely to resolve a tense situation on the street with conversation instead of fists or weapons.
Two experts warned against saying women are only good for certain tasks in policing. But three other experts said victims of abuse are more comfortable talking to female cops.
Newark Police Captain and former Chief Ivonne Roman said she knew a female detective with a knack for coaxing suspects into providing information. One interview with a suspect, she recalled, helped solve two murders.
“It was just simply by having a conversation, not coming across threatening at all,” Roman said. “I think that can work for men or for women. It just seems like a style that comes more naturally to women.”
Andrew Ford, a staff writer for the Asbury (NJ) Park Press and USA TODAY NETWORK, is a 2019 John Jay/H.F. Guggenheim Justice Reporting Fellow. This is a condensed and slightly edited version of an article he completed for his fellowship project. The full version of the article, detailing the new fitness standards, along with video reportage, is available here.