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Wednesday, Oct 21 1998
A few months back, some friends and I were having some beers at Kate O'Brien's on Howard Street, and we couldn't stop staring at the cop at the bar smoking and drinking on duty, in uniform, with a service revolver at his waist. Our wayward officer had a readily apparent fondness for the stout, and a big old belly to prove it.

Now, drinking on duty is obviously a sin at the department, and the cop would be in big trouble if he had been reported. But I subsequently discovered that the effects of his love of the stout -- his soft, protruding belly and the ill health effects of smoking -- are not of official concern to the SFPD. For more than a decade, and for the worst reasons, the San Francisco Police Department has had no enforceable fitness requirements or standards for its officers.

Let me say that a little clearer: You can be a fat, hard-drinking, chain-smoking fool and still wear the uniform so many cops have died for over the history of the SFPD.

Now that I've begun noticing -- on-viewing, as cops say -- examples of this indefensible policy are pressing upon me, as it were, everywhere I turn. I was out in the Inner Sunset the other day and saw a cop smoking a butt like it was his mother's teat. He was grizzled like sun-dried mule skin and had a posture much like my poor Italian Nona -- God rest her soul -- just before she died. (She was in a wheelchair.)

Aside from the negative effect this kind of comportment has on the public's confidence in the Police Department, I'm sure allowing flabby, butt-smoking flatfoots on the street also has a direct effect on the department's ability to fight crime.

I swear this Inner Sunset cop couldn't have chased down my 12-year-old beagle if it had snapped a knish from an inattentive Noah's patron (which the little son of a bitch is perfectly willing and able to do).

Everyone knows who the fat slobs on the force are.
There's a sergeant who works in narcotics who's legendary for his girth.
Ask a cop who's been around long enough, "Who's the fattest cop on the force?" and he or she probably will mention the sergeant's name without pause or prompting. (Since this cop didn't return my phone calls I will not mention his name, but I'd still like to talk to him about his thoughts on the matter of physical fitness and law enforcement.)

Sgt. Orca might disagree, but I think San Francisco police officers should be held to stringent physical fitness standards and punished in a way that will stand up to a court challenge -- because there will certainly be a challenge by the cops and lawyers who have historically defended an officer's right to obesity and bad health.

Being a cop is an honor and an awesome responsibility. Being an effective and levelheaded cop requires good physical conditioning. Being in shape reduces stress levels and gives an officer a competitive edge on suspects.

Officer Vicki Stansberry from Ingleside Station will tell you that.
Last week, she was called to the scene of an attempted home robbery. Two fleet-footed thieves interrupted in the act started jumping over backyard fences in a steeple chase through the Excelsior District. Stansberry set out, hot on their trail, hopping 6-foot fences all the way.

Finally, the robbers climbed to the roof of a multistory building. Stansberry stuck to them. She borrowed a ladder from the building owner and made her way up to the roof, where, just like in the movies, she pulled her revolver, screamed something like "Freeze you little monkeys," and made the arrest.

The suspects are currently cooling their Mercury heels in county jail.
But I ask you: What if it wasn't Stansberry on the beat that day? The 41-year-old cop is in extraordinary shape. Up until a few months ago, when she bought a fixer-upper home, she was running several miles and working out in the gym six days a week. "I was a maniac," she says. (She's a marathoner, too.) On her beat, she rides a bike to stay in shape. And once her home is up to snuff, she'll get back to her six-day-a-week workout routine.

What if Sgt. Orca were the cop on that beat that day?
Without much doubt the burglars would have escaped to rob again, and perhaps hurt someone in the process. (These guys were caught trying to kick in a door.) And let me propose another dire possibility: Maybe Sgt. Orca had had a bad day. As a result of his bad health, perhaps he didn't handle his stress well. Maybe he was so worked up and pissed off about not catching the thieving little buggers that he pulled his gun in anger and shot.

The potential for unnecessary gunplay is the most extreme reason the department should get tough on fat cops. There are many more: the loss of public confidence slobby cops cause; the cost to the state in disability payments to out-of-shape cops, who injure themselves more easily than fit officers; the excessive health system payments to these same cops; and most important, the adverse effect being out of shape has on routine police work.

The physical requirements of police work are constant. Stansberry says beat cops regularly get into situations where they have to excel physically. "You have to climb fences and chase people a lot," she says. "It's a routine part of the job."

I can't think of a single defensible reason to stick with the current policy on fitness, which is without a doubt a joke and an embarrassment. (And I don't care how many other departments in how many other counties in how many other states have similarly inadequate policies.)

For the vast majority of officers -- those who came into the department before 1994 -- there are no standards. Once out of the academy, they don't have to do a single push-up. They can concentrate their fitness regimen on arm curls at the Gavel, the cop bar across from the Hall of Justice, and that's perfectly all right with the department.

About The Author

George Cothran


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