Police Academy

If you logged on to the website of the Vancouver Police Department (Vancouver.ca/police) recently, probably the first thing you saw was a fairly in-your-face challenge: “Do you have what it takes to be one of Vancouver’s Finest?” The force is in heavy recruitment mode. Operation: Search & Employ aims to put 120 more uniforms on the street in time for the opening of the Olympics next year. And so it has been advertising across Canada, talking up the merits of a job that, while under the public microscope right now, still holds appeal to a certain kind of person. It’s virtually recession-proof. Starting pay’s decent ($52,233), and the starting happens quickly: you can go from a schlub with some college credits to a badge-brandishing flatfoot in eight brief months.

Turns out there are a lot of hoops to jump through to become a cop, including a written exam, a polygraph test, and a background check in which 30 references must vouch for your good character. But the most psychologically menacing hurdle for many is the physical exam called the POPAT: the police officers’ physical ability test.

Anyone can take the POPAT. Practice sessions used to be offered every few weeks and cost $25, but lately the VPD has been running them every Wednesday night for civilian drop-ins for free. This has had the desired effect of attracting the weekly maximum of 20 men and women, from serious would-be recruits to tire kickers there to satisfy a personal curiosity many indulge in but few get a chance to test: can I outrun a cop?

It isn’t a trivial question. It shapes the confidence you have in the people assigned to protect you, and even the way you feel about yourself. Police are forbidden to shoot at someone who’s running from them unless they have good reason to suspect that person has committed a major crime or poses a serious threat to society. (And in truth, shooting is so far down the list of options that it doesn’t even enter most officers’ minds, even as they’re in a full T.J. Hooker sprint.) So in a pinch, if you can outrun a cop you’re in the clear, with your minor transgression your own secret forever. On the other hand, knowing just how fit the average beat cop actually is may make you think twice. Either way, it’s good information to have.

In jogging shoes and shorts I showed up at police headquarters one recent Wednesday. Clayton Cross, the VPD’s fitness co-ordinator, crossed off my name on his clipboard. He had extremely good posture and a vaguely Lou Gossett Jr. air about him, even as he smiled. He wore a little armband that said “King of Pain.” (On official test day, potential recruits would already be a bit knackered at this point, having run a mile and a half as fast as they could on the seawall an hour before. You have to do it in under 12 minutes or your day is finished before you get here.)

Cross led everyone into the police gym. We lined up along a wall under a banner that read: “The more you sweat in here, the less you sweat out there.”

The POPAT is basically an obstacle course, with both strength and endurance components. It’s designed to reproduce the sorts of things a police officer might encounter on the street. That was the brainwave of POPAT creator Doug Farenholtz, a retired Vancouver RCMP constable who was hired in the mid 1980s by the Justice Institute to co-ordinate the physical fitness of the officers. Farenholtz revamped the standard military fitness test to make it more job-specific (and fairer to women: the old system rewarded recruits for the number of sit-ups and push-ups and pull-ups they could grind out). The POPAT runs recruits through a figure-8-shaped circuit. You juke around some cones, jump a two-metre mat that simulates a ditch, beetle up and down stairs, and vault over a succession of hurdles that simulate garbage cans a perp might throw in your path as he flees. (“Clayton likes to use that example, but it’s a bit Hollywood,” Detective Constable Heidi Schoenberger would tell me later. “More likely you’re going to be jumping over a concrete barrier.”) Six times you repeat the circuit, and then it’s directly into the “push-pull machine,” which simulates a fight, and then to a burpee/high-jump station, which simulates leaping over a wall after being knocked to the ground. (After the test, everyone helped take apart the rubber floor mats and stack them for storage—which, I guess, simulates paperwork.)

“I won’t lie to you,” Cross said as he explained the jumping-over-the-wall part. “You’re not going to feel very good at this point. If you do need to puke, please use the washrooms down the hall rather than here on the gym floor.”

Farenholtz developed the POPAT using information provided by police officers themselves, as well as data from the inmates within the B.C. correctional system that he and a physician tested the circuit on. The inmates completed the trial in 4:15 on average. Since inmates tend to be a pretty fit lot, Farenholtz concluded that four minutes and 15 seconds of flat-out effort was indeed strenuous enough to separate the genuinely fit from folks relying on attitude and a couple cups of coffee.

“The bad guys can run for two minutes full out, ’cause it’s fight or flight, right?” said Schoenberger, a 16-year veteran of the force and of many a foot chase. “But they have zero fitness, so after that they crash and burn. If you can just keep them in sight you’re okay.”

Cross punched a stopwatch, and the first of the guinea pigs entered the course. A few off-duty cops poked their heads out of the weight room, with grins on their faces. There was a tremendous amount of camaraderous cheering among the newbies as each left the starting block. Four or five minutes later, doubled over and panting, many began coughing. Coughs became part of the soundtrack of the evening. (“We call it POPAT lung,” Cross said later. “Everybody gets it. You’ll have it tonight, and you’ll probably have it tomorrow.”)

The VPD doesn’t keep stats on how many people from these practice nights typically decide to keep going through the hoops. (Schoenberger ventures the number may be around one in four.) Of those who go on to take the actual POPAT and pass, around half will ultimately soldier on through the interview with a recruiting detective, the polygraph, role-playing, and psych tests, the sergeant interview, and everything else, until they end up with a badge.

A guy built like a furnace charged through the first few circuits and then began to flag. By the last station, as he threw himself over the wall he had no strength left to brace himself for landing. He just slammed down, over and over. It sounded like an octopus being tenderized on a dock.

Full disclosure: I am a little bit too old for this. I am at the age when you factor into the daily energy budget the possibility that you might drop something and have to pick it up. Realistically, I’m not a very good candidate for the force. “We did hire a 42-year-old last year, but, you know, there’s a higher chance of injury,” Schoenberger said later.

Cross nodded me into the course.

It’s surprising how tiring it actually is, in middle age, to jump over things. Cross’s pregame warnings were mostly theatrics, but he was right in the generalities: this is way harder than it looks. Something about the combination of aerobics and anaerobics not only depletes your muscles, it addles your brain. The superdogs can keep straight what they’re supposed to be doing on these race-courses, but I couldn’t. Was that five or six circuits? Was it a push-up on this side of the wall or a sit-up? Eleven, twelve, Jesusgod. “Again,” Cross said, as I messed up and had to repeat. “Now stand up, man. Stand up!”

He peered at his watch, and then at me. I recognized that look. From deep in the memory vault came place and time. It was Mr. Belmont, my high-school gym teacher. Belmont, rumoured to have been a Green Beret in ’Nam, was overseeing the Particip­Action fitness test that every Canadian kid had to take when the government learned we were all less fit than a 60-year-old Swede. You had to complete all the components, including the punishing flexed-arm hang. The goal was 72 seconds. I gassed out badly on my first two attempts, and on my third and final try quickly started shaking like an old Maytag. I hung on as long as I could, then melted down from the bar, done. Belmont’s expression was complicated. He was, I understand now, weighing the spirit-crushing truth against the white lie that would release a young man into the world with confidence out of proportion to his abilities. The kind of confidence we need to keep industry humming, trains running, laws enforced. “Seventy-three seconds,” Belmont said.

Back in Vancouver, in the here and now, Clayton Cross performed his own moral calculus. He smiled a Belmont smile. “Four minutes, 10 seconds,” he said. VM