The Finest Or The Fattest?

Proudly displayed on every blue and white squad car of the Chicago police is the motto of the force: "We serve and protect." Maybe it should add "... and chow down." So suggests Alderman William Beavers, who, with the approval of the city council, is trying to make physical fitness an issue in ongoing contract talks with the police union. Cops already have to meet minimum standards in order to join the force. Why, Beavers asks, should those requirements be ignored once the officers go on duty?

The paunchy policeman has long been a staple of the beat, as well as of television cop culture. Officer Gunther Toody was the friendly sidekick on "Car 54, Where Are You?" in the 1960s; Officer Andy Renko was the chubby bumpkin on "Hill Street Blues" in the '80s. Beavers, himself a Chicago cop for 20 years in the notorious Second District, says he knows lots of overweight officers, some as heavy as 350 pounds. He's not unsympathetic to the temptations of the streets, where lunch breaks are short and the food fast and greasy. "We got McDonald's, Burger King, Dunkin' Donuts, Harold's fried chicken and Lem's ribs," says Beavers. "They eat and get fat."

To enter the police academy, Chicago recruits must be in good physical shape. Men between the ages of 20 and 29, for example, have to bench-press 98 percent of their weight and run 1 1/2 miles in 13:46; women in the same age group must press 58 percent and run in 16:21. There are also stretching and sit-up requirements. To graduate from the 20-week training course, among the physical tests, only the running time need be improved. After that, the new officers can eat sugar crullers to their heart's discontent. The police department does provide free physicals and limited gym facilities. And it founded the statewide Police Olympics, in which cops compete in track, bicycling-and darts. But voluntary efforts only go so far. In October, the Chicago Health Club offered all city workers discounts of up to 50 percent on membership at its downtown facility. Twelve officers signed up, far fewer than employees of other agencies.

The police themselves are wary of Beavers's proposal. John Dineen, the head of the Chicago police union who's admittedly scarfed down a few desserts of his own, fears that any fitness standards adopted would be "strictly punitive" and could even be used to fire officers. He says cops should be given incentives to shape up, such as working out on "company time." In body-conscious California, the incentive for the San Diego police came from the officers themselves, who worried that an out-of-shape partner would not provide the best cover. After some initial resistance, the cops now take physical-fitness tests four times a year.

Advocates of shaping up are convinced that a fit cop has less stress and ultimately does his job better. Robert Rogers, who supervises the FBI's two-year-old mandatory fitness program, says a belly gets in the way on the job. "I don't want a fat cop coming to my house when there's an intruder," he says. "Then you've got a double problem." According to Mary Powers, head of Citizens Alert, a Chicago police watchdog group, complaints of excessive force correlate to officer fitness. "If police were in shape, they wouldn't have to bully people around." Powers says the ballooning of the blue uniforms leads to taunting and a poor public image. At a recent march, Powers says demonstrators quickly picked up the chant "Bad cop, no more doughnuts."

Beyond union resistance, the Beavers proposal faces short-term budgetary roadblocks-even if physical fitness in the long run is cost efficient. The department has only one full-time and seven part-time doctors for about 12,000 officers-not enough to do annual physicals for the entire force. If the city paid officers to work out and instituted physical tests, that could cost millions of dollars more in lost hours. And perhaps there is a case to be made, as Richard Wedgbury, director of the personnel division, says, that "there aren't many long-distance chases that go on for blocks. That's why God invented the Chevy."

Prospective candidates for police departments must be physically fit. Once in uniform, too many go to seed.

To become a Chicago cop, a 29-year-old man must be able to bench-press 98 percent of his weight, run 1.5 miles within 13:46 minutes and do 37 sit-ups in one minute.

To get a "good" score as an active FBI agent, a 35-year-old woman must run 1.5 miles within 16:04 minutes, do 32 sit-ups in one minute and have a resting heartbeat no higher than 78.

To encourage fitness, FBI agents are paid for three workouts a week.