The Thick Blue Line

Nichols ran fast - can the cops do the same?

Within minutes of Brian Nichols' escape from the Fulton County Courthouse two Fridays ago, TV cameras were on hand to capture the effects of his rampage - the shocked bystanders, the cop giving CPR to Sgt. Hoyt Teasley as he lay mortally wounded on the street, the chaotic manhunt that allowed Nichols to slip away.

But if you were glued to your TV that morning, as thousands of Atlantans were, another image was inescapable: As dozens of Fulton County sheriff's deputies burst out of the courthouse, it was hard not to notice that many - most of them, in fact - were also bursting out of their uniforms. They were, in a word, fat.

Sure, there have been fat cops as long as there have been doughnuts. But the circumstances of Nichols' alleged crimes - overpowering a deputy and then eluding others on foot - call into question not just the security protocol within the courthouse, but the basic readiness of deputies to mix it up if called upon.

Worse, the department's dining habits may have taken two key deputies away from their posts as Nichols' rampage began - missing a crucial opportunity to stop the slaughter before it started. WSB/Channel 2 Reporter Dale Cardwell last week quoted sources as saying the deputies who were supposed to be watching security monitors may have been across the street getting food for themselves and a supervisor while the unwatched courthouse cameras showed Nichols overpowering a female deputy.

Charles Rambo, a sergeant at the Fulton County Jail and president of Local 453 of the International Brotherhood of Police union, readily acknowledges that there are deputies both at the jail and within the courthouse who are out of shape. And yet, once you're hired as a deputy, there are no physical fitness standards to adhere to. Combine that with the requirements of the job - which in the courthouse involve lots of sitting around - and all the ingredients are there for a bulging waistline.

Rambo, a two-time unsuccessful candidate for sheriff, would like to see an exercise regimen implemented for deputies. "Law enforcement officers need to maintain a healthier lifestyle," he says. He recalls that there used to be a weight room for deputies at the jail, but that it's since been dismantled.

Of course, the Fulton County Sheriff's Department is hardly unique among Georgia police agencies in its lax attitude toward the physical fitness of its officers. According to Frank Rotondo, executive director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police, few departments have strict policies regarding the fitness of their employees. One exception is the LaGrange Police Department, where Chief Louis Dekmar makes his officers run through a timed obstacle course every year.

Dekmar ties pay raises to completion of the test. If an officer fails the test twice, he or she faces possible termination.

"The potential in law enforcement is that you are going to be running, chasing and crawling, and there ought to be a minimum standard of fitness to ensure that officers are going to be able to protect themselves and others," Dekmar says.

Rotondo believes more departments should have standards like LaGrange's. Obstacle courses could re-create real-life police situations, like sprinting after a criminal, climbing a fence or squirming through a window. "So theoretically, you could chase a prisoner and should be able to catch them within a hundred yards and not have to grab your chest," Rotondo says.

The Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council, which certifies every cop in the state, doesn't do much to prevent cops from growing obese.

"The rule is, if you can do the job, if you're physically able to do the job, there's not any problem with your certification," Rotondo says. "It's up to the department to set the standards and adhere to the standards and take action if the people fail to [meet them]."

The question comes down to "physically able." Sure, a fat deputy who operates a metal detector may be perfectly able to screen people at the door, but he's hardly capable of sprinting after a fleeing prisoner. Should he be? Rotondo says making such a requirement could run afoul of laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"A good attorney would say, 'The person can still do the job. Sure, they can't run 100 yards in X number of seconds, but does that mean they can't do their job?'"

Rotondo says leadership by example is often the best way to keep officers in the weight room and away from the doughnuts. He points to Dekmar, the LaGrange police chief, who is an avid runner.

"He sets a standard," Rotondo says, "which is important. You emulate your police chief. If you hire a big, heavyset police chief who can hardly breathe, there's really no incentive."

Thomas Brown, sheriff of DeKalb County, says he has some overweight deputies on staff, but he doesn't have a strict policy that would force them to get into shape. But Brown says he keeps pressure on those deputies by taking advantage of the exercise facilities at the courthouse and the jail.

"I'm in the weight room here at the jail a lot. I ride the stationary bike at least 20 miles a week. I also lift. So I'm seen a lot in the training facility. That's leading by example."

Both Rambo and Rotondo bring up another problem with setting strict weight and strength requirements for officers. By and large, cops in Georgia are paid abysmally, and often departments don't have the luxury of turning away an applicant whose record is clean, who's drug-free, but who may be packing on a few extra pounds.

"You've got to take the best applicants you can get," Rambo says.