Officers test their mettle

Challenge: Law enforcement officers from as far as California come to Maryland to compete in a fitness drill and try to win the $15,000 grand prize.

October 18, 2003|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

After struggling over the 6-foot-tall metal wall, Lt. Maryann Foxwell barreled through the rest of the course. She slithered through a mesh tunnel, trained a laser beam on a series of opaque globes and dragged a 165-pound dummy back toward her starting point. Then, another go at the wall.

Foxwell, 42, runs the fitness program for the state police, and she got a good workout yesterday in the Pikesville Armory. She was competing in what was dubbed the Law Enforcement Officer Performance and Reaction Drill - a sort of cross between boot camp stress and friendly Battle of the Network Stars competition, attracting police officers from across the country and cameras from ESPN.

Most police officers agree that the competition was a good test of police skills.

"In our area, there are lots of housing projects," said Capt. Perry Gallow of the Opelousas Police Department in Louisiana. "Jumping over fences and foot pursuits are obstacle courses we do every day."

The competition, called the LEOPARD Challenge for short, was designed to promote fitness and generate healthy competition among law enforcement officers, said course designer Paul Davis, president of the First Responder Institute based in Burtonsville. The nonprofit organization also creates fitness tests for fire fighters and federal agencies.

"We wanted this to be a marked departure from boring fitness tests - push-ups and sit-ups. We wanted it to be skill- and ability-dependent and show strength, endurance, stamina, hand-eye coordination all rolled into something that would have a lot of fidelity to what the job requires," Davis said.

Officers from California, Florida, Tennessee and Louisiana, representing more than 30 agencies, joined the host Maryland State Police and other agencies in the semifinal round of the competition yesterday.

Going into the finals today, a Maryland State Police team is in first place by 4 seconds. Out of 66 participants, the 56 fastest - including all five women - will advance. ESPN will tape the event today, Davis said. He said he has been told the show is scheduled to air Nov. 30.

The winning team will take home an inflatable rescue boat valued at $15,000.

Law enforcement officials hoped the event would dispel stereotypes.

"I am personally frustrated by the feeling among many [that] we all hang out at the doughnut shop," said state police spokesman Maj. Greg Shipley. "But we really don't."

Shipley said that physical fitness tests are required for state police officers, who train regularly and take classes on maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

With 19 members, the Maryland State Police fielded the most participants in yesterday's competition. Some participants were split into teams; others competed individually. Other Maryland agencies represented were Prince George's County Police and Ocean City Police.

Officers negotiated a 100-foot course, earning points for speed and shooting accuracy.

Pride was at stake, if the hootin' and hollerin' echoing through the huge gym-like space was any indication of how seriously officers took this competition. Once the troopers and officers suited up with vests, helmets and gun belts, they were ready for two minutes worth of maneuvers.

Competitors started by bolting out of trooper cruisers, scaling the 6-foot metal barrier and squeezing through the tunnel.

Then they ran to a window, opened it and triggered a jack-in-the-box-like mechanism that revealed a globe slightly larger than a softball. From about 10 feet away, competitors had one shot to hit the target with a 9 mm Beretta outfitted to shoot laser beams. Those who succeeded received bonus points.

A computerized system by Columbia-based Beamhit instantly tracked the hits and the misses, which resulted in time penalties.

After going up and down a small flight of stairs, the competitors shot at three more targets, reloaded, then handcuffed a "bad guy" dummy. They lifted and dragged a "good guy" dummy 50 feet back toward the wall, which they had to go over again before crossing the finish line. Both male and female participants said that dragging the dummy was the hardest part of the course.

"Halfway down, he gains 90 pounds," said Charles Mullis, a 46-year-old SWAT training officer with the Kingston Police Department in eastern Tennessee. "And that wall? What started at six feet finishes at nine or ten feet."

Competitors were split by age and gender, although the women who competed wouldn't have had a problem being paired up with men.

"I like competing against guys," said Gena McGill, 31, the officer from Modesto, Calif., paired with Foxwell in the second race yesterday. Her long legs were an asset in making quick work of the wall, but she said she lacked Foxwell's sharp-shooting skills.

"She smoked!" McGill said. The mother of three said the course was fun and realistic.

"You do encounter a lot of obstacles out there," McGill said. "I've chased guys through windows before."

Though she didn't have the bulging muscles of some of her Maryland State Police teammates, Detective Sgt. Phyllis Wert trained hard for the competition - wearing full body armor while running on a treadmill every day for a week. It paid off. She won the first race of the competition against Canadian student Erin Hanlon, 20, who Wert said is young enough to be her daughter.

"I've been a competitor since I was in high school," said Wert, a former champion fencer assigned to the criminal investigative division of the attorney general's office in Baltimore.

Team spirit ran high yesterday. "My guys have been so dedicated, practicing for this," said Foxwell, the state police team leader.

After her run, she said, "It was very challenging, very realistic - what we would have to do if we had to chase a suspect on the street."

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