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Eyesight standards: correcting myths.

For decades, law enforcement agencies required applicants to satisfy certain eyesight requirements before being considered for employment. Few would challenge the belief that public safety officers need good eyesight. What many do challenge, with some success, is the idea that applicants must possess perfect uncorrected vision. A basic question emerges: Should police recruits be allowed to compensate for imperfect vision with corrective lenses? If the answer is "yes," then how much variation should agencies allow?

Several factors converge to make this a timely issue for law enforcement managers to consider. With a dwindling pool of suitable applicants from which to fulfill future personnel needs, some argue that unnecessary selection requirements undermine law enforcement's recruiting efforts.

In addition, the recent enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of physical disabilities, if a person is able to perform the essential functions of the job. Because visual impairment could constitute a protected disability, agencies that cannot defend their vision standards leave themselves open to litigation under this new act.

Finally, advancements in medical science need to be considered. Present-day optical technology renders obsolete many of the age-old arguments in favor of vision requirements.

This article explores the issues involved in vision standards. It goes on to discuss these issues as they relate to the experiences and sentiments expressed in a recent survey of law enforcement officers concerning eyesight requirements.


The necessity for good vision in law enforcement--corrected or otherwise--rests in the visual nature of police work. Law enforcement officers spend a good portion of their working hours observing people and events and then reporting what they see. Additionally, officers must respond quickly to events taking place around them. They must interpret and react to the actions of others.

One basic tenant of vision standards is that a significant impairment translates into an equally impaired ability to interpret events and react appropriately. Moreover, evidence of poor vision might make officers vulnerable in court. If an officer's vision becomes open to judgment, so too may the evidence offered based on the officer's observations.

The argument for strict uncorrected vision standards rests on the belief that an officer may have lenses forcibly removed. Should this occur, the argument is that the officer would be unable to function adequately. That is to say, the officer would not be able to fire a weapon accurately, discern if a suspect was armed, or operate a police vehicle. This would place the officer in a physically dangerous situation that could possibly jeopardize others.

Although these arguments constitute the underpinning for vision requirements, police administrators are clearly not in agreement over the necessity for uncorrected vision standards. A 1984 study found that while a majority of the 323 police agencies surveyed required some minimum uncorrected standard, 26 percent of the responding departments required only that vision be correctable to 20/20. Another 22 percent allowed uncorrected vision of 20/100.(1)

Further, differing vision standards exist in otherwise similar agencies. Some large police departments, including New York City, Los Angeles, and Dallas, apply restrictive standards. Other large departments--such as Chicago, Detroit, Newark, and Tulsa--have no uncorrected vision standards.

The academic community also fails to reach a consensus on the subject. Some argue for a strict standard.(2) Others, however, question strict uncorrected vision requirements, especially in light of evolving vision technology, such as shatterproof plastic and soft contact lenses.(3)

And, even before passage of the ADA, the controversy over uncorrected vision standards attracted the attention of the courts. Although some courts upheld individual agency vision requirements in the past, this congruence may be coming to an end. In 1985, a Wisconsin court ruled that an uncorrected vision standard violated a State law prohibiting discrimination against the handicapped.(4)

In addition to these issues, several other factors fuel the argument over vision requirements. Few law enforcement agencies require incumbent officers to maintain the vision standard required for recruits. This means that many police agencies, even those with strict uncorrected vision standards for recruits, employ numerous veteran officers who now need to wear corrective lenses in order to perform their duties. Still, despite this fact, little concrete data exists concerning the relationship between corrective lenses and police performance.


Three basic issues emerge as arguments for a restrictive uncorrected vision standard. First, an officer who loses corrective lenses becomes visually impaired and vulnerable to physical assault. Second, the officer will not be able to see sufficiently to aim a service weapon, and as a result, may become vulnerable to an armed suspect. Third, the officer's vision will be too impaired to operate a police vehicle, and therefore, the officer could not pursue a fleeing suspect. In addition, a corollary to these issues emerges. If an officer's ability to perform becomes hampered, then other officers will be placed at a similar risk due to the loss of support of the vision-impaired officer.

Many observers both within and outside law enforcement offer these beliefs in sincerity. However, some dissenting opinions exist. With regard to the first issue, it could be argued that an officer engaged in hand-to-hand combat does not need eyeglasses to identify an assailant. At that range, the officer would have to be nearly blind to be incapacitated. An individual's uncorrected vision is not likely to be that bad if it is correctable to 20/20.

Second, the vast majority of shoot-outs with handguns occur at very close range. Of the 735 officers killed by firearms between 1980 and 1989, for example, 652 (89 percent) were shot from 20 feet or less. Indeed, nearly 60 percent of the fatalities resulted from shootouts of 5 feet or less.(5) At this range, officers point their firearms, rather than aim them. Therefore, officers with less-than-perfect vision suffer from no significant disadvantage. As the range increases, vision capabilities become more important, but handgun accuracy diminishes drastically as the distance increases beyond 20 feet, regardless of the officer's vision.

Last, with regard to the issue of visual impairment and the inability to pursue fleeing suspects, few issues currently generate as much debate among police administrators as vehicle pursuits. Several departments now prohibit pursuits in all but the most extreme circumstances, and few departments possess the facilities to teach effective pursuit procedures. In addition, police vehicles are notoriously subject to poor maintenance.

These factors cloud arguments concerning vision capabilities. Should perfect vision be required when proper training and equipment are not. Those who question the need for strict uncorrected vision requirements frame the question in simple terms. If an officer feels inadequate to initiate a vehicle pursuit, for whatever reason, the pursuit should not occur. This remains true for any situation involving the potential for pursuit and currently represents standard policy in the majority of police agencies.

Finally, it may be argued that officers who lose their corrective lenses in a duty-related incident are no more impaired than officers with perfect vision who get foreign objects in their eyes, such as chemical mace, fingers, or sand. In some cases, an officer with corrective eyewear may actually be better protected than those without eye covering.


The lack of quantifiable data regarding the correlation between corrective lenses and police performance hampers any productive discussion of the subject. For this reason, a research study was recently conducted in an attempt to clarify the issue and provide sufficient baseline information so that future debate might center upon fact rather than supposition.


The survey method emerged as the logical means to determine the association between vision requirements and police performance. Unfortunately, no police agency contacted kept relevant records in this area.

There may be several reasons for this lack of information. One may be that officers who wear corrective lenses do not wish to be perceived as weaker than those with perfect vision. Therefore, they do not include information relating to any vision-related incapacitation in police reports. Or, law enforcement agencies may simply not perceive loss of corrective lenses in a physical confrontation as a problem worth studying.

For whatever reason, agencies do not routinely record such information in police databases. The only information available appeared to be the cost to agencies for replacement of damaged lenses. However, this information failed to address the issue of police performance immediately after loss of the lenses.

Failing to obtain agency data relating to vision and performance required that the research effort concentrate on officers' experiences. While this method yielded primarily anecdotal information, it remained the only viable way of establishing some quantifiable data regarding this issue.

In order to gauge the relationship between vision and policing effectively, the project focused on police managers from a wide variety of agencies. The survey population consisted of 92 police executives from across the United States. England, Australia, and Canada attending a conference at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia.(6) The combined length of service for the survey population totaled 1,714 years, for an average of 18.6 years per respondent.

Participants were asked if they knew of cases where officers lost their corrective lenses in duty-related incidents. If respondents answered yes, they were asked if the loss of the corrective lenses resulted in injury to the officer or to others.

Further, researchers asked if the loss of corrective lenses prevented the officer from completing the activity being attempted at the time of loss. Then, respondents were asked to report any incidents in which impaired vision presented a problem, regardless of corrective lenses. Finally, researchers asked respondents to offer comments about police vision standards and to provide phone numbers for further contact.


Of the 92 participants, 48 (52 percent) said they knew of incidents where officers lost their corrective lenses in the course of duty. Forty-four (48 percent) knew of no such incidents. Twelve respondents (13 percent) recalled incidents where officers sustained injuries related to the loss of corrective lenses. Five (5 percent) reported incidents in which loss of corrective lenses impaired an officer's performance, and 12 (13 percent) recalled incidents where impaired vision unrelated to corrective lenses created a problem.

While the data appear fairly straightforward and easy to interpret, several factors actually make it more complex. Analysis of comments and followup telephone interviews revealed misinterpretation in several responses to the questionnaire. For example, a number of respondents understood the question regarding injuries to mean wounds suffered during the specific incident in which officers lost corrective lenses. In fact, the intent of the question was to determine if respondents knew of incidents where loss of lenses directly led to an ensuing injury. The same confusion occurred with regard to the question of performance. These misinterpretations led to a slightly inflated representation of the number of cases with injuries.

By analyzing the comments on the survey instruments and conducting followup telephone interviews, a slightly different picture emerged. In nine of the cases where respondents reported injuries, the wounds were not due to lost corrective lenses and presumably would have occurred anyway. The injuries happened during the same struggle that caused the officers to lose their lenses. In one case, a subject struck an officer with sufficient force to render him unconscious. The force of the blow also broke the officer's glasses. Similarly, two of the incidents initially reported as failures to perform adequately due to lost eyewear were physical confrontations in which the officers lost corrective lenses but still controlled the subjects and the situations.

In these cases, loss of lenses inconvenienced the officers, but did not impair their performance. Likewise, in several instances, an officer's failure to complete an assignment actually resulted from an accompanying injury, rather than lens loss.

Additionally, several anomalies bear mention. One respondent initially reported that he sustained injury when he lost his corrective lenses. A followup interview determined that vision impairment did not lead to the injury. Rather, when a subject knocked a pair of expensive eyeglasses from his face, the officer instinctively reached for them. When he did so, the subject grabbed and twisted his arm. Although sustaining an injury to his arm, the officer did regain control of the subject.

Another respondent reported that an officer who lost his lenses could not read the license number of an escaping suspect's vehicle. However, his partner did manage to record the number, leading to an eventual arrest.

In addition, several respondents reported instances where officers' eyeglasses became temporarily fogged as they exited air conditioned vehicles. One respondent also reported that exposure to sand and wind required officers with contact lenses to take periodic breaks for lens cleaning.

Ultimately, only three of the reported cases of injury or failure to perform satisfied the intended perimeters of the survey questionnaire. This represents 3 percent of the survey sample. When accounting for the number of service years represented by the respondents, the number equates to 1 case per every 571 years. Of these, only one incident could be verified.

The sole verified case involved a major shootout between several FBI agents and two heavily armed suspects. After the exchange of gunfire, two of the agents and both suspects lay dead, and five other agents sustained serious wounds. Immediately prior to the shootout, one of the agents lost his glasses when he brought his automobile to an abrupt halt just feet from the suspects' vehicle. He was fatally wounded during the ensuing gunfight, and his fellow agents speculate that the loss of his glasses significantly affected his ability to observe the movements of the gunmen. If that assessment is accurate, then the loss of eyewear may be cited as a contributing factor in the agent's death.

The experiences of the officers surveyed indicated that officers wearing corrective lenses do encounter situations in which they momentarily lose their corrective lenses or have them forcibly removed. However, the vast majority of these cases occur in arrest situations or within detention facilities. These face-to-face confrontations rarely involve weapons. In most of these cases, the loss of lenses produced no negative results either for the officer or the eventual outcome of the situation.

In their personal commentaries, respondents expressed uniform opposition to uncorrected vision standards. Several noted that their agencies lost a number of well-qualified applicants, who later gained employment in other agencies. The following comment offered by a lieutenant in charge of training and personnel for his department typifies the observations:

"I think this is one of the most meaningless fitness standards remaining to bar qualified people from police service. While I am sure that somewhere at some time some officer was seriously hurt and maybe died because of an eyesight issue--lost glasses, etc.--officers have not been fired, dismissed, or even had assignments changed because of diminished sight capacity after the hiring process. This standard only serves to eliminate otherwise qualified and acceptable candidates."

In addition, several officers offered personal accounts. They acknowledged their own vision problems and argued that their performance remained unhindered. Several reported that their agencies changed their standards due to lawsuits. Other respondents reported that their agencies were reevaluating their standards because they felt the current requirements barred too many qualified candidates.


Does this mean that law enforcement agencies should immediately eliminate their policies concerning standards for uncorrected vision? Not necessarily. This study is neither sufficiently comprehensive nor scientifically representative enough to draw such a sweeping conclusion.

However, surveys of this type do provide a starting point for meaningful discussion. The arguments upon which agencies base uncorrected vision requirements offer little in the way of empirical support. They remain based on largely hypothetical arguments. Nowhere has any agency documented such situations and studied the data concerning this issue.

This points to the underlying problem. Police vision standards, as well as other areas, should be based on proven capabilities necessary to fulfill the terms of employment. Instead, the reverse often happens.

Lacking supporting data, law enforcement agencies adopt standards based on "what if" scenarios. In the process, they lose qualified applicants and perpetuate myth-based standards with questionable relationships to police performance or agency needs. Perhaps this survey and future studies can help to counter these myths and lead to a more productive approach in establishing vision standards for today's law enforcement agencies.


1 Richard N. Holden, "Vision Standards for Law Enforcement: A Descriptive Study," Journal of Police Science and Administration, 12, 1984, 125-129.

2 O.W. Wilson, Police Administration (New York: McGraw-Hill Co., 1961); James E. Sheedy, Jeffrey T. Keller, Donald Pitts, Gerald Lowther, and Stephen C. Miller, "Recommended Vision Standards for Police Officers," Journal of the American Optometric Association, 54, October 1983, 925-928; Gregory W. Good and Arol R. Augsburger, "Uncorrected Visual Acuity Standards for Police Applicants," Journal of Police Science and Administration, 12, 1987, 18-23; C.J. Forkiotis, "Vision Requirements and the Police Officer Selection Process," Police Chief, November 1981, 56-59.

3 Michael A. Sciales and Leonard Territo, "Eyesight Standards for Police Applicants," Police Chief, February 1983; James E. Sheedy, "Contact Lenses for Police Officers," Journal of the American Optometric Association, 57, 1986, 658-660; Terry Cox, Annis Crabtree, Daniel Joslin, and Adrienne Millet, "A Theoretical Examination of Police Entry-Level Uncorrected Visual Acuity Standards," American Journal of Criminal Justice, 11, 1987, 199-208.

4 Brown County v. LIRC, 124 Wis. 2d. 560, 397 N.W. 2d. 735 (1985).

5 Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted, U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, 1989, Washington, DC.

6 The First International Symposium on the Future of Law Enforcement, FBI National Academy, Quantico, Virginia, April 1-5, 1991.

Dr. Holden chairs the Criminal Justice Department at Central Missouri State University in Warrensburg, Missouri.
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Author:Holden, Richard N.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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