Law enforcement fitness standards in the spotlight as lawsuit looms for Marshfield police

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MARSHFIELD, Wis. (WSAW) -- Area law enforcement departments are watching as a possible lawsuit looms for the Marshfield Police Department, after chief Rick Gramza terminated longtime officer Jared Beauchamp in January after he failed to pass an annual fitness test that was added to MPD employee contracts in May 2019.

Law enforcement member working out (WSAW Photo)

Most law enforcement departments in Wisconsin do not have annual programs to measure employee fitness after an officer or deputy is hired, according to the Wisconsin Professional Police Association.

That lines up with what 7 Investigates learned from area departments, including the Marathon County Sheriff’s office, Wausau Police Department, Oneida County Sheriff’s Office, and others. One local exception apart from Marshfield was the Wisconsin Rapids Police Department, whose contract includes a clause providing for an annual physical assessment and a requirement to maintain physical fitness, as determined by a doctor. Another type of fitness program around the state include departments such as Appleton Police that have incentive-based annual fitness programs.

Stevens Point assistant police chief Tom Zenner told NewsChannel 7 the department is paying close attention to the Marshfield case. Wausau deputy chief Matt Barnes also noted they are actively looking at what’s in the best interest of the police department, with the belief that physical fitness is important.

Wisconsin, not unlike many other states, does not set statewide fitness standards for law enforcement. The state Department of Justice, through its Training & Standards Bureau, has had a fitness test for students entering and exiting their law enforcement academy program since 2016. But the Law Enforcement Standards Board—a group of 12 chiefs and sheriffs created by Wisconsin law to set certifications and training across the state—leaves it up to individual departments to decide what physical fitness requirements are set for officers they hire once they complete the academy. That also applies to any fitness requirements placed on officers and deputies throughout their careers.

That doesn’t mean wellness of all types including physical isn’t encouraged, and MCSO’s sheriff Scott Parks noted that the physical requirements for their bomb squad are federally regulated. The Wausau police department has four committees dedicated to officer wellness, including one for physical fitness. Nearly all police chiefs or sheriffs that 7 Investigates reached out to noted that wellness, if not mandated, was still an encouraged priority. Nationwide, a 2016 task force led in part by the International Association Chiefs of Police (IACP) designated officer safety and wellness as “one of the key pillars necessary for driving healthy community-police relations.”

But in regards to establishing annual requirements for officer physical fitness, Wisconsin law stops short. Any changes that would allow the DOJ to set statewide fitness requirements for law enforcement would require change at a legislative level, according to DOJ deputy communications director Rebecca Ballweg. The LESB has discussed that in the past, Shelly Sandry with the DOJ’s Training and Standard’s Bureau said, but it’s never gone forward.

“The belief is that chiefs and sheriffs should be able to make their own decisions based on their department,” Sandry said about fitness standards. “It is encouraged that every agency has a wellness program.”

Ofc. Beauchamp, a longtime MPD patrol officer who during his career had suffered a knee injury, failed the physical fitness test by about 30 seconds during the quarter-mile run. He was subsequently terminated, prompting the WPPA to enter negotiations with the MPD to reinstate him.

Palmer believes Gramza needs to legally demonstrate that the test resulting in Ofc. Beauchamp’s termination was an appropriate measure of his essential job duties, and that it does not include discrimination. (NewsChannel 7 has attached both the MPD annual test standards and the MPD job requirements to this article.)

The absence of annual physical tests resulting in termination helps municipalities “avoid liability from having to enforce standards that may affect different people differently,” Palmer said, citing people with disabilities, women and older employees.

“We believe he applies a more lenient test for new police officer applicants, who would obviously tend to be younger,” Palmer said, referring to MPD’s initial medical clearance for newly-hired officers. “Experienced officers such as Jared Beauchamp deserve more respect for their many years of service to the community.”

While Gramza declined to comment on this story due to the ongoing nature of the personnel negotiations with the WPPA, NewsChannel 7 found a 2019 interview with the Marshfield news outlet On Focus where Gramza discussed the new annual fitness requirements that were built into the contract.

“Not a lot of agencies do this, but it’s also I think very overdue in the profession,” Gramza told On Focus’s Karlie Hohl in 2019. “We consider this part of their essential job functions.” In the interview, he cited a consultant that had helped develop the test specifically to meet Marshfield’s policing needs.

According to Palmer, negotiations with Gramza’s attorney are not progressing well, and that it’s likely the case will result in a lawsuit.