A police fitness test should be scrapped because it favours overweight "blobby bobbies" over higher quality female officers, says a leading occupational health expert.
Professor Craig Jackson led a study which found the timed obstacle course, designed to set a level playing field for men and women, to be "unfit for purpose". He described the test being conducted in conditions "like a sexist meat market" with male candidates wolf-whistling at their female colleagues.
His findings come at a critical time as police forces begin to roll out new annual physical fitness tests for experienced officers. The police "MOT" was recommended last year in a Government-commissioned review conducted by lawyer Tom Winsor.
His report found that of 11,500 officers and staff in the Metropolitan Police who referred themselves to the "For a Healthier Met" programme, more than half (52%) of men were overweight, a fifth (22%) were obese, and one in 100 was ''morbidly obese''.
Prof Jackson, head of psychology at Birmingham City University, investigated one type of fitness test used by police forces to screen new recruits. The GeNTOC (gender-neutral timed obstacle course) test is designed to mimic some of the challenges faced on the job by police officers. Candidates have to negotiate a course that involves crawling on hands and knees, making a one-metre forward jump, climbing up and down stairs, walking on a narrow beam, ducking under horizontal bars, weaving in and out of slalom gates, and dragging a simulated human body. Men and women alike have to complete the course in three minutes 45 seconds.
Prof Jackson analysed the test performances of 1,701 officer candidates from a single English constabulary, covering a period of five years up to 2012. He believes the results expose hidden dangers in one-size-fits-all "gender-neutral" fitness tests employed by police in the UK.
"Police forces have a number of officers labelled fit when they're unfit, and they're screening out officers who are fit - they just happen to be female," said the professor, who presents his findings at the British Science Festival taking place at the University of Newcastle. "The story here is not about fat coppers, it's not about blobby bobbies - although we found evidence of blobby bobbies. The story here is that the test that is used isn't fit for purpose."
Female candidates undertaking the GeNTOC test, developed by the former Royal Ulster Constabulary in Northern Ireland, were almost nine times more likely to fail. While 93% of the males finished the course in time, this was true of only 60% of the females. Half the candidates were overweight, and 9% obese. Of those classified as overweight, 43% passed the test - and three quarters of this group were male.
Setting the same time limit for men and women was "unrealistic", said Professor Jackson. In addition, different aspects of the test - especially the gate weave and body drag - discriminated against the female figure. Women found it harder to negotiate the slalom because of their wider hips. "It's the way we were created, it's a beautiful thing," said Professor Jackson. "The gates were not wide enough so men with snake hips could weave through quite easily. Females were wobbling and moving around, catching the gate, going back and having to do it again."
A spokeswoman for the College of Policing, which oversees police training, did not believe the GeNTOC test was widely used but could not say how many police forces employed it. Assistant Chief Constable Robin Merrett, head of the college's national fitness working group, said: "Annual fitness testing is being introduced to policing and involves a 15-metre shuttle run to be completed to an endurance level of 5:4 and is compliant with equality legislation. There is no obstacle course or upper strength testing as part of this annual fitness test. We will be ensuring that the fitness test does not unlawfully discriminate against gender or other protected groups, and for the first 12 months the College of Policing will audit data on pass and failures to understand how specific groups are performing."