GULFPORT — For the first time in Pinellas County, members of a municipal police department will have to prove they are fit for the job. Literally.
Gulfport police Chief Rob Vincent signed a policy Monday requiring officers to submit to yearly physical tests to evaluate how officers fare in duties they may encounter in the field.
Officers who fail could be reassigned or fired.
Vincent is the first chief in Pinellas to mandate fitness testing, a requirement he said should be a no-brainer for all agencies. The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office requires it, but no other police agency in the county does.
"Police officers are the last line between order and chaos," Vincent said. "If we're the ones that are supposed to be protecting people, we need to be physically fit enough to do that."
Tying job security to mandatory physical fitness tests has stirred controversy among police unions across the country, but Vincent said union representatives support the new requirements. A union spokesman could not be reached for comment.
Vincent is confident his 30 officers will have no problem rising to the challenge. "There shouldn't be any excuse for anybody not to pass this test."
When the Pasco County Sheriff's Office instituted a similar test in 2000, about 10 percent of law enforcement and corrections deputies failed. The success rate climbed only after requirements were eased.
In Gulfport, the test will measure how fast an officer can get out of a police cruiser, run 220 yards, scale a wall, crawl on the ground, drag a 150-pound dummy and aim and fire a mock handgun before turning around and getting back in the cruiser.
They have no more than six minutes and four seconds to complete the course.
The circuit is designed to simulate a foot pursuit, and what an officer might have to do if a partner were incapacitated.
Gulfport will hold unofficial assessments in October to show officers where they need improvement. The first official test will be in May.
"I think the chief just wants to prepare us to be the best we can be, because you never know what the next call on the radio might be," said Sgt. Robert Burkhart, a department spokesman.
Those who fail will be allowed three more tries, with 30 days between each.
Lt. Howard Coombs, the Gulfport police operations commander, wrote his University of South Florida master's thesis on police wellness. He said the physical fitness test is just the first step toward a healthier force.
"Everyone's going to participate, so everyone's going to see where their fitness level is and how they can improve it," Coombs said. "It's a good thing."
Reach Marissa Lang at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3386.