South African police officers being forced to get fit under new health program

By Nastasya Tay, AP
Monday, March 22, 2010

Fitness program whipping SAfrican cops into shape

PRETORIA, South Africa — South Africa’s police officers will have to squeeze into their uniforms and hit the gym as part of a program aimed at making them better able to chase criminals in a country with one of the world’s highest violent crime rates.

The launch of a fitness program on Monday comes after one study earlier this month in the city of Port Elizabeth found more than half of the city’s police force was medically obese, raising questions about their ability to keep fans safe during the FIFA World Cup.

About 200 police trainees kicked off the Viva Fitness! program on Monday, doing jumping jacks and other exercises. Activities like the “ice-cube catch” and “tire drag” were also on offer. Officials are also measuring officers’ body fat percentage.

Baby Jake, a former flyweight boxer and one of the local celebrity faces of the program, says if police officers are fitter, South Africa will be a better country.

“I’m sure they’ll shoot less and run more,” he said.

Officers will be required to maintain the uniform size issued when they leave the academy. Those who exceed the size of the uniform they are issued will be given the opportunity to get back into shape over a year.

If they do not, they will be in breach of policy and will no longer be allowed to be part of the organization, National Police Commissioner Bheki Cele said.

“Police officers should be able to walk with their heads held high, their stomach in, and chest out — not the other way around,” Cele said.

The police service has committed to trying to install gyms at all police stations, as well as signing agreements with private gym partners to provide subsidized facilities for their staff.

Director Phil Vuma, who has been in the police force for 24 years, thinks the biggest benefit of the new fitness program will be a shift in public perception, especially among criminals.

“Criminals are less likely to commit crime if they see the police force is lean and mean,” Vuma said.

The police service maintains that the program is not related to the upcoming World Cup tournament. However, concerns have been raised about the safety of an estimated 500,000 visitors expected to descend upon South Africa in June and July.

Christopher Snyman, a 23-year-old officer, is a year out of police training.

“A lot of police officers just need encouragement … fitness should be part of the job description,” he said. Chubby police officials should “take a look in the mirror and pull up their socks,” Snyman said.

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