Jeff Jardine

Agile or fragile? Columnist tests skills alongside future cops

Applicants put themselves to the test during the Modesto Police Department’s agility test in Modesto on Wednesday.
Applicants put themselves to the test during the Modesto Police Department’s agility test in Modesto on Wednesday. aalfaro@modbee.com

There is a reason you don’t see many men or women becoming police officers in midlife, and certainly not well beyond that midpoint.

As any veteran cop will tell you, patrol work is a young person’s job. That explains why the vast majority of the 535 people who applied for roughly 15 available jobs with the Modesto Police Department were in their early to mid-20s and only a few into their 30s.

Of those applicants, about 360 came to the Ray Simon Training Center in south Modesto to take the second step: the agility test. I joined them, just to see if after 36 years in journalism, gray of beard and turning 58 this summer, not to mention a bit arthritic and completely out of shape, I could do what they need to do just to get to the paperwork part of the process.

Big difference here: The others had a vested interest – their futures, realizing to some what has been a lifelong dream to become a law enforcement officer. Eventually, the cream of this crop will go to the academy, where they will study to become police officers.

“It’s reinvigorating to see how badly they want it,” Lt. Brian Findlen said just moments before the afternoon session of about 90 hopefuls began.

Hopefuls such as Cole Sesse, a 21-year-old from Merced who works as a security guard.

“I think this is the next step,” he said.

Hopefuls such as Vicky Sanchez, a 25-year-old mother and wife already accepted into the police academy in Stockton but needing to complete the agility training, including the 500-yard run that gave her problems on two other testing occasions.

“I missed it by 2.4 seconds each time,” she said.

And scores of other hopefuls who want to make protecting and serving their life’s work.

Me? I was there to try to understand what they must go through for their dreams to become a reality. My only other goals were not to break anything and not to visibly decay in public, like Muhammad Ali in his late-career fight against Larry Holmes or like the old ballplayer stumbling around the base paths during his final days as a player. Some no doubt wondered why the old guy, meaning me, was there. But all were extremely supportive and encouraging nonetheless.

The day’s third session drew 90 applicants plus me. After filling out the liability waivers – the “don’t try to hang this thing on the taxpayer if you get hurt” paperwork – we formed lines in the gym. In fact, one of the officers in charge later quipped that I was probably the only participant among them “who could file for worker comp” if injured while doing my “job.”

Half of the group began by doing push-ups: 15 legitimate ones, with the chest touching the mat, in 60 seconds or less. The other half did sit-ups, 20 good ones, again in a minute or less. Then we switched stations.

Applicants used to do those exercises later in the process, I was told. But they were moved to the front because the brass didn’t want someone to get well into the process before discovering they couldn’t do these basics.

Next, we dragged a 165-pound dummy designed to resemble a person – sans the PCP or other hallucinogenic drugs – 32 feet in 20 seconds.

Like nearly everyone else, I cruised through the first three portions without issue. Then, we headed outside to the track for four more events: scaling a wooden wall, scaling a chain-link fence wall, a 99-yard agility course complete with sharp turns, obstacles and finish sprint and, finally, the 500-yard run. Everybody hates the 500-yard run, even though they get two minutes to complete it.

The wooden wall must be scaled, followed by a 25-yard sprint to the finish, within 20 seconds. It’s an important skill because perps frequently jump fences and cops have to be able to chase them. And catch them.

I cleared that hurdle on the first try. Some needed to repeat it not because they weren’t strong enough but because their technique was off.

Next, I went to the obstacle course. Zigzagged through it, vaulted the final barrier and sprinted – OK, ran fast enough to irritate a hamstring – to the finish several seconds ahead of time.

Third came the chain-link wall and my inevitable moment of decrepitude. I cleared it easily but landed off-balance in the grass infield softened by Tuesday’s rain and Wednesday’s beating from the applicants who preceded me. I couldn’t get my legs under me, scrambling to break out of the crab-walk that I’d stumbled into. I don’t remember spinning out of it, like a defensive end executing a swim move to get to the quarterback, but it’s there on video – complete with people laughing in the background. But who cares if I looked like a fish flopping on the deck of a tuna boat? I finished the task with plenty of time to spare.

That left the 500-yard run. Understand that I detest running distances beyond, say, the 15 yards from my kitchen door to the mailbox, and only when it’s raining. It certainly didn’t help to be congested from a cold. They broke us into five groups. Mine was the third, and when the hammy went whammy on the back stretch, I figured I was toast. It tightened, but then seemed to loosen up a bit as I kept lugging around the track and finished about 10 seconds under the limit.

A few hopefuls in each of the five heats failed to make it within two minutes and are now out of the running – literally and figuratively – for this round of MPD openings. But they can try again in a few months.

No one understood this better than Vicky Sanchez, who practiced for a month at her only weakness and as late as Tuesday said she still couldn’t finish the 500-yarder within two minutes. In fact, “Tuesday, I was 2.4 seconds over, just like the other times,” she said.

But this time, she remembered the advice her husband, Alex Cacho, offered to help her focus.

“He said, ‘Just keep thinking about your daughter, and run,’” Sanchez said.

So she concentrated on 3-year-old Destiny. And she ran.

Sanchez finished a split second under two minutes and now can move on to the Stockton academy.

Likewise, Cole Sesse survived this all-important day and will move on to the written testing. So did more than 300 others, for maybe 15 openings.

“It’s very competitive,” said Findlen, the MPD lieutenant.

Indeed. Except in my case, I didn’t compete for a job – only to do the one I already have. That I actually passed the agility test without a trip to the ER is just a bonus.

No workers’ comp claim. Won’t even need to take a sick day.

Bee columnist Jeff Jardine can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or (209) 578-2383. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJardine57.

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