For many women, the only obstacle standing between them and a career with the Los Angeles Police Department is a six-foot wooden wall.
Scaling “the wall” is one of the Police Academy’s pass-fail entrance requirements, part of an intense physical exam designed to weed out the weak from the strong. Fail it and forget a badge.
The wall, with its emphasis on upper body strength, is one of the biggest reasons that women are turned away from the department. About a third of women who take the test cannot pull themselves up and over the scuff-marked wall, compared to about 5% of men, according to city officials.
“I’ve had dreams about the wall,” said one female applicant who has struggled with it. “I’ve had knots in my stomach. I’m always thinking, ‘I’ve got to get over it. I’ve got to get over it.’ ”
As the LAPD tries to close a significant gender gap, the wall has become a growing point of controversy. A City Hall study of LAPD testing and training requirements is expected to recommend that the wall be knocked down as an entrance requirement.
The police admissions test is particularly critical now. After years of moderate hiring within the force, Mayor Richard Riordan is pushing for a massive expansion of the LAPD. At the same time, the City Council has set a goal of 43% for female LAPD officers, a long way from the current 15% figure.
“The wall is symbolic of the old days,” said Katherine Spillar, national coordinator for the Feminist Majority Foundation and a former adviser to the Los Angeles Police Commission. “These tests screen out people who might make excellent community police officers in favor of brute strength. Do we just want weightlifters and Marines, the old stereotype of brawny muscle-bound men?”
Designed to approximate the fences that officers occasionally climb on the job, the six-foot wall is a graduation requirement for all California peace officers. But most agencies have eliminated the wall as an entrance requirement to their training academies. The LAPD and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department are among the departments that have not.
As the LAPD moves toward community policing, which emphasizes mediation skills and close contact with neighborhoods, some critics are questioning the usefulness of the wall as an entrance requirement--especially because scaling it is a skill that can be learned at the academy.
“I’m not saying we want a bunch of wimps in the department,” said Penny Harrington, a former police chief in Portland, Ore., and one of the leading critics of the LAPD policy. “We want a test that measures the ability to do the job.”
Inside the department, officers complain about the prospect of altering a physical test they had to pass. They say police work is tough and the entrance requirements ought to be just as tough.
“It really is symbolic of the determination and commitment that one has to become a Los Angeles police officer,” said Capt. Margaret York, the LAPD’s highest-ranking woman and one who supports the wall. “It is something women can do, although it is not something that is easy.”
Christy Lynne Hamilton, the rookie officer shot to death last month four days out of the Police Academy, was one who struggled with the wall. She was so determined to join the force that she built a six-foot wall in her back yard so she could practice.
Currently, Police Academy applicants take the physical abilities test after passing a written test, interview, medical exam and background check.
Those who fail the physical portion may retake it. There are special training classes to help applicants on their second attempt--and LAPD statistics show that the classes boost the pass rate for women to nearly that of men. But some of those who fail do not sign up for the classes, drifting away from a department that is under great pressure to increase the number of women in its ranks.
“There are women for whom the wall is their Waterloo,” said Abby Leibman of the California Women’s Law Center. “We lose some women for this reason alone. They may make great police officers.”
The debate over the wall is part of an ongoing rethinking of the role of the modern-day police officer. The emphasis is shifting from military-style policing that places a premium on weaponry and confrontation, to a community-oriented approach that encourages bicycle and foot patrols that bring officers closer to residents.
Already, the height requirement for LAPD officers has dropped from 5-foot, 8-inches to an even 5 feet. The latest class to come through the academy illustrates the change: For the first time in history, the class leader was a woman, one who is 5 feet, 3 inches tall and weighs 118 pounds.
But rethinking the department’s role does not make the streets less mean, and some within the LAPD are uncomfortable fiddling with standards that have stood for more than 20 years.
Stephanie Tisdale, a senior lead officer in the West Valley Division, said: “You have to get over walls as a officer. It’s ridiculous to think you don’t have to do that. If you can’t get over a wall, don’t be a police officer. This is not a sorority.”
The wall’s critics say they want fair standards, not less-trained officers. They note that officers never have to scale the Police Academy wall again during their careers, and they wonder how many current officers could make it over the top.
“The selection and training processes must eliminate all exercises like the wall that unnecessarily and unfairly depress female participation by favoring physical strength over more highly needed interpersonal communication skills,” said a report prepared last year by the women’s advisory committee to the Los Angeles Police Commission.
Since then, an increasing number of City Council members have questioned the validity of the wall.
“Physical requirements for the job are perfectly legitimate,” said Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, who chairs the Personnel Committee. “You need more than just good negotiating skills to be an officer. But I have a number of difficulties with the wall. . . . If our experts find a legitimate need for it, I’ll back off.”
The city’s Personnel Department is in the midst of a wide-ranging review of all LAPD testing and training procedures. The two-year study is due to be released by the end of April, and department officials say there is a good chance the wall may be eliminated as a prerequisite to entering the LAPD academy.
If that proves correct, the wall will remain a graduation requirement at the academy, as required by the state Committee on Peace Officers Standards and Training.
The wall is not the only test that may be thrown out.
Phil Henning, assistant general manager of the Personnel Department, said other elements of the physical entrance exam--such as dragging a dead weight and hanging on a bar--may be altered in favor of more scientific methods of measuring fitness.
Police experts have come down on both sides of the wall.
The state completed its own review of the tasks that police officers typically perform on the job and found that “climbing is a critical activity that occurs with extremely high frequency.” The findings indicated that 69% of all climbing involved fences or walls. Of those climbs, two-thirds involved solid, six-foot walls.
But opponents of the wall point out other studies.
A review of police physical exams that appeared in a law enforcement trade magazine found: “The data did not support the need to climb or jump six-foot walls or barriers, walk a balance beam, pull a rope down to the floor against some resistance, drag a heavy object some distance, push vehicles or crawl through pipes or windows.”
The authors, who included a criminal justice professor, an exercise consultant and a police chief, recommended a test that concentrated more on physical fitness than strength.
Academics aside, eliminating the wall is liable to rile the ranks.
Police Chief Willie L. Williams, treading cautiously, said he is waiting for the review of the test before taking a position concerning the wall.
“There are certain things you should know how to do,” he said in an interview. “But we also want a test that doesn’t discriminate.”
Could the chief get over the wall today?
Williams said that as an officer in Philadelphia, he scaled an eight-foot wall during a chase. As for the LAPD wall, Williams said he hasn’t tried.