As U.S. police struggle to recruit women, New Jersey fails female recruits

Portrait of Erica Hicks

This story was published by The Record (Bergen County), Asbury Park Press and USA Today. It featured an interactive introduction and graphics, see it here:

By Andrew Ford 

Erica Hicks wants to protect and serve. 

Hicks, 34, quit her desk job, asked her boyfriend to watch her six-year-old daughter and spent more than $1,200 on uniforms and equipment to enter a New Jersey law enforcement academy. 

“I was all in,” she said. 

But within three weeks, she was kicked out. 

Despite a reputation for progressive politics, New Jersey created a physical test for police recruits that fails women far more often than men. 

And New Jersey is just one example in a nationwide struggle to recruit women to law enforcement. 

In just one year, New Jersey almost tripled the rate of women failing police academy physical tests after imposing a nearly impossible feat on recruits. 

The Garden State’s police academies weren’t always so uneven. Women and men once passed the physical tests at a similar rate. 

But women failed up to 13 times as often as men after a little-known state commission told aspiring cops that they had to get stronger within nine workouts or go home. 

New Jersey’s new rule exacerbates the state’s low national ranking for women in law enforcement, the Asbury Park Press and USA TODAY NETWORK found. 

New Jersey falls behind 32 states and Washington, D.C. for women working as cops. One third of the departments in the state employed none at the last count in 2016. Louisiana has the greatest representation of women in law enforcement with more than 22 percent. West Virginia trails the nation at 3.82 percent. 

Police abuses routinely make headlines across the country and prompt demand for reform. Women cops are known to use less force, but police departments nationwide have struggled for decades to recruit them.

The Network found policies for police recruit physical testing range widely between states. Police recruit data from New Jersey– revealed for the first time by the Network – shows how a time limit on recruits becoming stronger had a deeply negative impact for women in police academies. 

The Network found 31 percent of women failed the New Jersey physical test in 2017, compared to 2 percent of men. 

“That’s news to me,” said James Abbott, police chief in West Orange and one of the 16 members who served on the New Jersey Police Training Commission when they made the rule change. He said he would discuss the gender gap at the commission’s next meeting scheduled for Wednesday. 

“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 gender gap will be investigated after the Network brought the issue to the attention of the state’s top law enforcement official. 

A spokesperson for New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, whose office released the police recruit data, said he recently convened a working group to study police training practices and 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. 

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 pushups, 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. 

No one can become significantly stronger in that time, according to Steve Farrell, a senior researcher at The Cooper Institute, which recommends physical tests for cops nationwide.

Promptly after the rule took effect, women failed police physical tests at a rate strikingly higher than men, the Network found. 

Creating a gender gap 

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. 

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.” 

He raised the possibility that there were more recruits coming from civil service towns in the years more women failed. Those towns can’t turn down a candidate for physical fitness reasons before the academy. 

“If this article that you’re writing is fair and there’s something we could look at, I’m sure we’re going to look at it,” Sharrock said. 

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. 

Women bring skills to police departments 

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.” 

How did New Jersey fail so many women? 

State data shows men passed New Jersey’s police academies at a higher rate than women every year since 2009. 

More than 9,800 men applied to New Jersey police academies from 2009 through 2018, compared to 1,460 women. Looking at those years together, 91 percent of men graduated compared to 66 percent of women. 

Women used to fail physical tests at a rate similar to men. 

For the years from 2009 through 2014, the rate for women failing academy physical tests hovered between 2 and 4 percent, compared to less than 1 percent for men. 

There was a spike in 2015 for unclear reasons. Twelve percent of women failed the physical test in 2015 compared to 3 percent the year before. The failure rate for men remained unchanged, about 1 percent. 

Three members of the police training commission said they didn’t recall a change to physical testing rules in 2015. Meeting minutes show changes to the curriculum for police recruits in 2015 but not physical testing procedure. 

New Jersey failed many women in 2017 and 2018. 

After the state cut the time recruits have to get stronger, women failed the physical test at 31 percent in 2017 and 18 percent in 2018, compared to about 2 percent in both years for men. 

The cost of failing women 

New Jersey’s practice of failing female police recruits at a disproportionate rate is costly for recruits and taxpayers. 

The state wasted at least $246,000 by failing women on physical tests in 2017 and 2018, according to state data and an estimate by one town that it costs $2,000 to send someone to police academy. Recruits earn a nominal salary and go through several taxpayer-funded tests before they get to the stage where they’d be told they can’t do enough pushups. 

The failed recruits can lose thousands of dollars themselves. They might quit jobs for police training and some are required to buy uniforms that, if they fail, they’ll never use again. 

But the biggest expense could come in the form of a class-action lawsuit against the state. 

The gap between men and women passing the physical test is enough to establish the foundation of a legal claim of gender discrimination, according to Charles Sullivan, senior associate dean at Seton Hall University School of Law. Sullivan estimated the cost for the government to defend such a lawsuit starts about $50,000 and could cost taxpayers $2 million. 

That legal showdown would hinge on whether New Jersey can show why it’s necessary to limit the time recruits have to get stronger. 

Sullivan was skeptical. 

“What’s the business necessity?” he asked. “Doesn’t seem like there would be any business necessity for reducing the amount of time.” 

What do other states do? 

There’s debate about whether recruits should have to do pushups to become sworn officers. 

But two experts were critical of New Jersey’s time limit on police recruits getting stronger. 

Add a bench press to New Jersey’s police recruit fitness standards and they match the standards promoted to law enforcement for three decades by The Cooper Institute, a Dallas-based health research nonprofit. 

At least 31 other states use some or all of the Cooper exercises, according to a national review conducted by undergraduate researchers from The College of New Jersey in cooperation with the Network. Fourteen states use obstacle courses similar to challenges officers might face on patrol, like climbing over a fence or dragging a dummy that weighs as much as a person. 

Some states have no standard for police recruit physical testing. Some states test recruits before they enter the academy. Recruits in some states get the duration of the academy to grow stronger. Some states don’t allow a retest if the recruit fails on their first attempt. 

Roman, the former Newark police chief, questioned whether pushups are necessary for police work. 

“I’ve been a police officer for 24 years,” she said. “I worked in gangs, narcotics and street crimes for more than 10 years. I’ve never had to do one push-up before putting handcuffs on someone.” 

Cooper Institute researcher Steve Farrell explained the exercises they recommend — including pushups — were scientifically validated to be a legitimate test of upper body strength necessary for police work like wrestling a suspect. 

But both Farrell and Roman were skeptical of New Jersey’s time limit on police recruits. 

“…If you are substantially far away from the passing standard, there’s no way in heck that you could significantly improve your fitness level in just two weeks,” Farrell said. 

He estimated someone would need four to six weeks to significantly change their muscular strength and about eight weeks for cardio. 

New Jersey can do better, here’s how 

The state can do more to attract women to law enforcement careers, help them pass police academies and improve law enforcement practices. 

1) Change the physical tests for police recruits – New Jersey could test applicants before they’re hired to make sure they’re physically fit and not destined to fail the academy, as the Police Training Commission had considered. 

“It seems that you’d want people coming into the academy that are qualified to begin with, rather than finding that out during the academy,” said Farrell, the Cooper researcher. “That’s an enormous waste of taxpayer money.” 

The state could eliminate the time limit for police academy recruits to improve if they can’t pass the test on their first attempt. Candidates would then have up to roughly five months, instead of a couple weeks, to become as strong as the state wants them to be. 

The U.S. Army, FBI, and police academies in 18 states don’t expect women to be as strong as men on the physical test. 

2) Ongoing physical testing for all officers – While police academies heavily feature physical training and the physical tests are a leading reason candidates fail, there is no state-required testing to ensure municipal police officers remain physically fit throughout their careers. Cops could be periodically tested for fitness the same way they have to regularly prove they can use their firearms. New Jersey State Police, which operates under different authority than municipal police departments, tests troopers on physical fitness annually. 

“It’s hard to defend a physical fitness performance standard if the state doesn’t have an ongoing expectation of maintaining that physical fitness standard,” said Susan Lee Rahr, executive director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, a government body that sets police standards. 

3) Help women pass the test – There are small groups and some departments that help aspiring police recruits train to pass the physical fitness test. This could be made available to all recruits. 

New Jersey State Police requires aspiring troopers to attend at least two free workout sessions before they get into the academy. 

“We’ve been doing that for years and we’ve found that really does help,” said state police Major Jeanne Hengemuhle, a former commandant of the New Jersey State Police Academy. 

4) Change recruiting messaging – Show women in promotional materials to attract a broader range of applicants. Rather than pushing paramilitary SWAT tactics, departments can promote the way their officers help people or work with victims of violence. 

“I think just maybe highlighting the broader aspects of the job in their recruitment campaign could help,” said John A. Shjarback, assistant criminal justice professor at The University of Texas at El Paso. 

So fewer videos like the state police recruiting clip that shows troopers in olive drab fatigues toting assault rifles and sliding down a rope out a helicopter to the tune of a hardcore guitar riff. 

And more videos like the state police “Behind the Badge” series that shows female troopers talking about their inspiration and community service. 

5) Promote more women – Women can be inspired by seeing other women in positions of power. Phyllis Bindi wanted to be a cop since she was a kid. She became the first female chief in her hometown department, East Orange, the municipal agency with the largest percentage of female cops in the state. One-third of the supervisors in the 205-officer department are women, according to Bindi. 

Out of more than 460 police departments in New Jersey, there are 11 female chiefs, according to the state association of police chiefs. 

There should be more, Bindi said. 

“We bring a different set of skill sets to the leadership of policing,” she said. 

A chance at her dream job 

Erica Hicks is fighting to be a cop. 

She lives with her mom, unemployed while she works out daily. 

After she was booted from the barracks of the state academy for corrections officers in March, she set her sights on being an officer in Irvington, her home town. 

She has a chance. 

She said she was hired by the town and she plans to attend the police academy in September. 

She jogs through a park near her home every morning. The running portion of the test is a killer, she said. 

But she thinks she’s ready. 

“I have to pass this test,” she said. 

This story was produced as part of a fellowship with the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Reporting assistance was provided by undergraduate researchers from The College of New Jersey under the guidance of Assistant Professor David M. Mazeika: Alexis Depew, Daryl Hoehne, Kyle Maliniak and Angela Meneghin.