Belfast Telegraph

PSNI U-turn on fitness test: police change policy on physical checks for female candidates

By Deborah McAleese

The PSNI has been forced into a U-turn over the fitness testing of female recruits, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.

Just weeks after a senior officer claimed that women in Northern Ireland were not fit enough to pass the physical for potential recruits, the organisation has radically changed its one-strike policy.

Candidates, both male and female, who fail the gruelling test will now be given a second chance. Previously if a candidate failed the physical they were immediately disqualified from the recruitment process.

The shift in policy comes amid serious concern over the low success rate for female applicants to the PSNI.

A recruitment campaign launched in 2013 saw just 67 women securing one of the 353 posts.

If the second chance at the physical does not help to increase the number of successful females, the PSNI said it will consider "further radical steps".

Policing Board member Jonathan Craig said: "This is an embarrassing climbdown for the PSNI. But it has to be welcomed. Everything possible has to be tried to give women a fair chance.

"There are police officers with 20 years' experience who couldn't possibly pass that test, so why are young women being given such a hard time? I think this is a really sensible move. While fitness is important it is not absolutely critical to all aspects of the policing job."

Last month Assistant Chief Constable Alistair Finlay, who has since left the force, sparked a backlash when he claimed that young women who wanted to be police officers were just not physically fit enough.

Attempting to explain the disparity between the number of young men and women joining the force, Mr Finlay said that just two out of every 10 would-be female recruits were passing the force's physical entrance test, compared with 90% of men.

"There is an issue for wider society in terms of the overall fitness, particularly of young women - they are significantly less fit than young men," Mr Finlay told the Policing Board.

"The disparity in the data between males and females of a similar age range shows that the female applicant pool are hugely less physically fit than the male applicant pool."

However, Chief Constable George Hamilton told members of Northern Ireland's Policing Board this week that "in response to the female fail rate" at the physical assessment, "the Service Executive Team have agreed to further support measures for those failing the test initially, and a retest after a 12-week period".

The new policy will apply with immediate effect to all candidates from the current recruitment process, the first tranche of which received their invitations this week. They are due to take the physical in May.

"If these steps do not prove to be successful in increasing the numbers of females passing the PCA (physical competency assessment) then the PSNI will further consider what more radical steps need to be taken," Mr Hamilton said.

He said the fitness test had not been a deterrent to women who wish to join the PSNI, with the force exceeding its 30% target rate for female applicants.

However, he said that while the applicant rate for females was above target, the success rate for females in the process is "very concerning".

Over 60% of women in the 2013 recruitment process failed the fitness test.

The Belfast Telegraph last month challenged the Chief Constable to take the fitness test, after Mr Finlay's comments about female fitness levels.

He has still not responded to our invitation to take the test.

The physical competency assessment comprises an obstacle course - based on physical activities that officers are likely to come across on the job - which must be complete three times within 3.54 minutes. Once the course is completed, candidates have to display their strength and resistance for 20 seconds on an isokinetic machine which simulates pushing and pulling in a struggle with someone.

Currently, only potential new recruits, beat and patrol officers, and some specialist units within the PSNI have to undergo physical testing. However, consideration is being given to the introduction of fitness testing for all officers on an annual basis.

No sanctions would be imposed on officers who fail, but they would be expected to work with PSNI trainers to bring their fitness levels up to standard.

I failed by seconds but dream was shattered

Finally the PSNI has seen sense, but it's too late for me.

I failed the physical by a couple of seconds and it destroyed my dream of being a police officer in Northern Ireland.

I knew the physical test would be tough so I read up about it and began training three to four times a week for several months to make sure I was in good enough shape for it.

I really felt well prepared and wasn't worried about taking it.

I had already passed all of the other areas of assessment and was so confident that I would soon be a fully qualified PSNI officer that I handed in my notice to my previous employer.

But I made a silly mistake during my third lap around the course and incurred time penalties.

I failed by seconds and that was me out of the process altogether.

Others who scored much lower than me in the other assessments but who passed the physical have since graduated.

The test is discriminatory as it is suited to the male body more than the female. It is good that the PSNI is finally taking steps to address the problem.

But I still think that the test in general needs to be reworked to make it fairer for both sexes.

  • The name of the interviewee has been withheld

Further reading

Women would-be recruits 'less fit'

Top academic offers PSNI help to work out why women are failing police fitness test

After top cop says women aren't fit for police force, will Chief Constable George Hamilton put himself to test?

'PSNI fitness test is unfair on women because male recruits are naturally stronger'

Chief Constable George Hamilton would need a Taser to catch a con 

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