While the public portrayal of police has gone through some rapid changes over the last few years, the popular depiction of police officers as fat is everywhere. The most famous is probably the doughnut-loving Chief Wiggum of The Simpsons but you can find the fat cop stereotype in almost every show or cartoon, especially throughout the 90s and 2000’s.
But this stereotype didn’t just come out of thin air and there’s a reason it’s caught on. It’s not hard to find fat police officers which can seem a bit strange considering just how physical their job can be.
So why are so many police officers fat?
Extreme stress, long hours, and limited availability of healthy food choices can all take a toll on police officers and lead to weight gain. Additionally, some police departments don’t have regular fitness requirements so once new recruits meet fitness standards they aren’t retested in later years.
Of course, that’s the quick answer but there’s a lot more to cover on this subject so let’s learn more about why so many officers of the law are heavy.
But first, let’s clarify one important question…
Are Police Officers Actually Fatter Than Anyone Else?
Is the popular media presentation of police officers all wrong or are police officers really fatter than your typical American citizen?
One study found that 40.5% of police officers were obese compared to 32.1% of the United States population. While no study is perfect, it does suggest that it’s not just popular culture driving this stereotype and due to all the reasons below police officers really are more likely to be fat.
Reason 1: Many Departments Only Require One Fitness Test…One Time
The majority of fat police officers didn’t start that way.
In fact, many police departments have rigid fitness standards that potential officers have to meet before they can even be considered for employment.
However, once a new recruit has passed these tests they’re rarely required to maintain this level of fitness.
The Criminal Justice Institute of Arkansas explains that “During police academy training, there are fitness standards a recruit has to pass in order to graduate. After academy, however, there rarely are any fitness standards to which an officer is held. The recruit is told how important physical health is and tested accordingly, but a veteran officer does not have to comply with any physical standards.”
This isn’t true for every police department and more and more police departments are taking action to address this problem.
Of course, the lack of fitness standards doesn’t cause fat police on its own but it doesn’t open the door and allow many of the other reasons on this list to take hold.
Reason 2: You Can Still Be Fat And Pass A Fitness Test
Even if there are physical fitness tests for veteran police officers they don’t require a person to not be fat.
While specific height and weight requirements were the norm in police departments years ago, these types of policies have since been challenged in the legal system and frequently overturned.
That’s a net positive for building a diverse police force that truly reflects the communities they serve but it does complicate the process of avoiding fat cops.
Fat people can be fit and bigger officers that are well trained can still be strong, flexible, and even athletic. Sure, they may not fit the traditional sense of fitness but they can absolutely meet the requirements of most police programs.
For example, the Colorado Springs Police Department Physical Readiness Test requires that officers meet the following standards:
|Event||Requirement to Pass|
|Vertical Jump||15 inches|
|Bench Press||60% of candidate’s body weight|
|Illinois Agility Run||22.2 seconds or less|
|Sit-Ups||25 in one minute|
|300-meter run||76 seconds or less|
|Beep Test||Level 4, Shuttle 4|
These requirements are well within the ability of most fat folks and with a little training, even a big person can easily meet or even exceed these standards.
Again, this doesn’t explain what makes police officers fat but it does highlight that fat police officers can still be qualified for their work.
Reason 3: Stress…And A Lot Of It
It should be no surprise that police officer consistently makes the list of extremely stressful jobs.
Being a police officer requires you to regularly deal with life or death situations, aggressive citizens, and the darkest parts of humanity. To make things worse, this stress is occurring constantly and leads to what researchers call cumulative PTSD which is caused by frequent and repetitive stressful situations over a prolonged period of time.
This constant stress raises a police officer’s cortisol levels almost daily. Cortisol is considered the body’s main stress hormone and even though it has many biological benefits in fight or flight situations, according to WebMD cortisol can also “cause higher insulin levels, your blood sugar drops and you crave sugary fatty foods.”
That’s why high-fat or high-sugar foods are often called “comfort food” and also helps provide a scientific explanation for the cop and doughnut shop stereotype. Those doughnuts are a practical response to the high-stress situations that officers often find themselves in.
Even if officers are able to resist the temptation to eat sugary, high-fat foods the steady stream of cortisol can slow down the metabolism and make weight loss difficult even if you’re making good food choices.
Stress can impact a police officer’s lifestyle in more ways than just food choices. If you’re constantly dealing with exhausting stress all day, you may not be excited to hit the gym or cook a healthy meal when you get home.
Instead, you’ll want to unwind, relax and grab a quick meal. While that can provide instant (and much needed) relief, it may cause long-term weight gain.
Reason 4: Healthy Food Is Expensive
Not only is time an issue for police officers but so is money.
With a rate of pay that can regularly dip into the $40,000 range, it’s no surprise that police officers, especially those with families, may not have the disposable income required to purchase healthy food.
There’s a reason why Whole Foods is frequently called “Whole Paycheck” and healthy, quality foods aren’t cheap.
When it comes to feeding themselves and their family, many police officers opt to go for the cheaper route which includes fast food or budget options from the grocery- neither of which work well on a diet.
Reason 5: Healthy Food Isn’t Available At Night
Because the majority of violent crimes occur in the evening hours between 5:00 PM and midnight it’s typical to see more police officers working shifts that cover this time, including shifts that stretch past midnight and into the early hours of the morning.
But if you want a healthy meal at 11:30 PM on Tuesday, what options do you really have?
It’s not your local Whole Foods, that’s for sure.
Instead, the options are usually fast food spots like Taco Bell or 24-hour diners both of which service high-calories, high-fat foods.
The regular shift worker can make a quick trip to the grocery store on their lunch break to pick up a healthy snack if they forgot to pack a lunch or didn’t have time but this just isn’t an option for many police officers that are out and about in the middle of the night.
Not only that, but a police officer can’t always decide when they’re going to have their lunch. If an emergency happens then it’s their job to address it even if they just finished preparing their Cesear Salad.
With limited time and limited choices, police officers are often stuck with foods that can quickly pack on the pounds.
Reason 6: There Can Be A Lot Of Waiting
Police work isn’t all about running down bad guys…there’s also a lot of waiting around for something to happen.
There’s been a big push towards proactive policing which involves community outreach and essentially trying to prevent crimes from happening in the first place. But at the end of the day, a majority of police work is still reactive which means officers are waiting for the next call before they take any action.
That means a lot of sitting in the patrol car and in some cases passing the time by eating. Obviously, that’s not great for fitness and all this waiting around can cause some officers to gain weight.
Police officers are also responsible for quite a bit of paperwork that keeps them sedentary, whether that’s in the patrol car or back at the station. While paperwork isn’t the same as waiting, it’s a far cry from the calorie burning workout of actively fighting crime.
Reason 7: Being Fat Can Actually Help With Some Police Work
I know, that might not make sense at first but being a cop isn’t all about running down criminals. Once you catch them, you have to be able to subdue them and that often requires raw physical power.
More weight can make the entire process easier. If a police officer weighs 225 pounds and the suspect weighs 145 pounds then the officer has a big advantage when it comes to a physical confrontation. That means a decreased need to use additional force like tasers or pepper spray which is almost always a good thing.
That’s not to say being fat or heavy is a net benefit for police officers but in many cases, it may be and could decrease an officer’s urgency when it comes to losing weight.
Additionally, there’s the fact that officers may not ever need to run down a suspect. Officers can work together to block exits, even in entire neighborhoods, along with using police dogs to run down fleeing suspects.
But dogs can’t cuff a suspect and when it comes to time to subdue a suspect without using an elevated level of force, being big, fat, or heavy may actually provide some distinct advantages to officers.
Reason 8: Shift Work Has Been Linked To Obesity
Shift work, which is any work that falls outside the hours of 7 AM and 6 PM, can be hard on anyone. But when you combine odd shifts, long hours, and years of cumulative stress it’s no wonder that it does a number on police.
But just how bad is shift work?
According to Franciscan Health, “Researchers have found that shift work is linked to an increased risk of heart attacks, ulcers, depression, obesity, and high blood pressure, along with sleep problems, such as trouble falling asleep, trouble staying asleep and excessive sleepiness.”
In other words, nothing good and it’s worth highlighting that obesity makes the list of major shift work problems.
We’ve already pointed out that many police officers are scheduled in evening hours to match the times of day when crimes are most likely to occur but many departments also require officers to work 12-hour shifts which almost unavoidably fall into the shift work category.
Over the last several years, dozens of studies have been done on the negative impact of shift work not only on health but also job safety and employee efficiency including some studies specifically done on police officers.
Unfortunately, avoiding shift work, based on the definition above, is almost unavoidable for police officers and is just another of several contributors to weight gain. Still, many departments are moving towards shorter shifts which may help some officers improve health and sleep habits.
Reason 9: Walking The Beat Is A Thing Of The Past
Decades ago, it was normal for police officers to “walk-the-beat” which simply meant patrolling an area in anticipation of a crime. Before the rise of more advanced police technology, this was a relatively efficient technique for managing crime.
But these days, a skilled dispatch team and a powerful communication network make walking the beat a lot less efficient. Instead, officers can be quickly dispatched to the right spots without spending time patrolling an area.
This puts more police officers in sedentary roles as they wait at the station or more often in their patrol car to be dispatched instead of burning calories walking around a specific neighborhood.
Even if police officers are put in charge of walking a beat, it’s rarely walking anymore, and instead, single personnel vehicles like the segway are more and more popular with police departments. These vehicles may help officers get around quickly but it doesn’t help them burn calories like walking does.
Reason 10: Officers Lead Busy Lives
Of course, they do…who doesn’t?
Well, that’s the point. At the end of the day, police officers are just like anyone else and almost everyone adds on a few pounds as they age.
Police officers also have family that they want to spend time with instead of working out or handling meal prep for the week.
There’s also the issue of moonlighting which means that officers are even busier than the average person in some cases.
According to the Chicago Reporter, “Nationally, as many as 40 percent of officers moonlight in some capacity, a recent survey of 162 law enforcement agencies suggests. That could mean as many as 300,000 officers working secondary jobs in a given year, putting in up to 43 million hours of work for private employers.”
That’s a lot of extra hours which means some police officers are very busy. In many cases, police officers are working as private security guards which may not have the same PTSD potential as regular police work but can still be a source of major stress which only increases the risk of weight gain.
Additionally, these extra jobs make officers even more likely to fall into odd hours and suffer from the ill effects of shift work.
More hours means that all the catalysts for weight gain listed above are even more likely to occur
Unions May Be A Factor
While the 10 reasons above more than explain the frequency of weight gain in police officers, unions may play a small role as well. It’s estimated that out of the 800,000 police officers in the United States, roughly 75-80% of them belong to a union.
Unions are a complex subject that goes way beyond the question of why officers gain weight but one thing is clear: unions are in the business of protecting worker’s jobs. Because of that, many unions are going to be hesitant about implementing physical fitness tests that could jeopardize the jobs of fat officers.
Of course, many fat officers would still potentially pass required physical fitness tests but it’s unlikely that unions want to increase the difficulty of maintaining a police work position.
What’s The Answer?
Unfortuatnely, there isn’t an easy answer when it comes to obesity amongst police officers.
Issues, like shift work, high stress, long hours, and sedentary job responsibilities are just a part of being a police officer. That’s not going to change.
But the biggest impact seems to be from police departments creating a culture of fitness and health. It can be hard to do but if departments are able to encourage fitness among officers it can go a long way to improving the overall health of departments.
It’s true that police officers are more likely to be fat- at least according to some studies.
Most people struggle with their weight but it’s even more difficult for police officers that have to face constant stress, poor food choices, and a whole of waiting around.
It’s possible to improve the overall health of officers by encouraging a culture of fitness across police departments but it’s not going to be easy.
What do you think?