Military and Police

Will Ergonomics Back Our Nation’s Police Personnel?

Almost every police cruiser I ever operated as a street cop had tell-tale signs of wear and tear caused by an iconic police mainstay: the duty belt. Before my agency went to take-home police cruisers, it was not a matter of whose gun or radio poked that hole but how many guns/radios drilled into the driver’s seat cushion—we ran solo, no police partners, so the passenger seats were unscathed. Eventually, our department launched its take-home car program. Only then, gradually, did I watch my unwitting work on the very upholstery upon which I sat, and from which I entered/exited for most of my 12-hour street-duty shifts.

Despite the dominant side one’s service weapon is holstered, the alternate side held the portable radio. Thus the left or right area of the driver’s seat cushion is maligned by the holster and portable-radio cradle, the seat’s integrity betrayed by upholstery explosion. The seatback cushion was no better; other equipment on the duty belt—handcuff cases, rubber glove pouches, belt-keepers—impinged against both the back cushioning and…the human body.

Thus, besides causing seat damage and center console scraping, the accoutrements engineered to help police officers save lives, including their own, may be the very downfall leading to an existence with ample trips to the chiropractor and pain medicine. The former may “pop bones” for relief while the latter is prohibited in police work.

Since police officers have a mobile office to include a centrally-anchored laptop computer, constantly canting the upper body to the right while the lower body remains tucked under the dash is detrimental. It is not shocking that cops, especially tenured ones, may suffer back, hip, and body strains, especially cops of smaller stature—more on that last factor in a moment.

Sick time may become a static norm affecting staffing which, if you’ve ever been a cop, sucks when you need back-up and know some of the cavalry is laid-up, grimacing, and perhaps dealing with Workers’ Compensation battles.

As noted police guru Tim Dees wrote in 2010: “Now that Sam Browne’s have to accommodate a lot more hardware than a sword or pistol, the best solutions to better distribute the weight thus far involve suspenders, a load-bearing vest, or some combination thereof to take some of the load off of the hips and lower back and shift it to the upper body. These don’t fit with the traditional appearance of a police officer, and the suspenders have a way of getting caught up on whatever protrusions happen to be in the officer’s operating environment. Load-bearing vests are closely associated with combat troops, which is not the image most agencies want to present.”

Screw the appearance and how it may offend someone. It is a matter of health for those who step up to do a thankless, perilous job some care to only watch on TV while rendering judgments from a safe, cozy pulpit in proximity to popcorn. As to suspenders, I always wondered why such devices were even considered. As per police academy indoctrination: “Always watch the hands” and never give up a piece of yourself. Suspenders serve as a tether which can be grabbed by any suspect, potentially used to yank a cop. God forbid, suspenders could also wind up as a lasso and choking instrument.

The classic duty belt has been the staple piece of equipment for many years, with aches and pains in its wake. Duty vests are elbowing there way in to vogue applications.

Even some police retirees sounded out about the old-fashioned method: duty belts. Gentry Mayfield said,”Being a medically retired officer for back issues due to the gun belt I applaud the decision [to use vests for duty gear]!” A police spouse wrote on Facebook: “My husband has been wearing a duty belt over 23 years. I tried it on and [it] took me to my knees! Weighed it and it was over 55 lbs. He has had back and hip problems since he has been wearing it! Fixing to retire this would be great for our troops to wear, maybe it will save some hips and backs on the others coming in.” The string of supportive comments for the duty vest are equivalent to the plethora of complaints regarding the duty belt and its inherent health woes for most cops.

Traditional belt-keepers (seen in following image) were purposed to keep the weight of the actual outer belt which aggregates all the weighted equipment in place, but did little for weight distribution. The human back was the workhorse in that regard.

Police equipment manufacturers heard the alert tones and came up with a duty vest. Over the past few years, manufacturers are perfecting the vest method, and more departments are transitioning away from most equipment worn on duty belts, repositioning to duty vests. In a police forum, I read about the Orono, Maine police force mostly shedding traditional duty belts and donning “weight-bearing” duty vests.

Orono police Officer Wentworth sporting the police agency’s new duty vests: “The Orono Police Department is equipping our officers with these weight bearing vests. After speaking with doctors and doing our research, we are making the switch to these vests for health and safety reasons.” (Credit: Facebook/Orono Police Department)

Invested

Still an exoskeleton design like the traditional duty belt, the newest method of taking the weight off the core and redistributing it more evenly is by pouching almost every piece of police gear on/into a zippered vest. Even the electronic brick (portable radio) is elevated from the traditional hip-hugging position. The zipper design enables a quick-shed action, should the need arise. But that is a paradox and minor conundrum for cops.

Ever witness a cop run to save a drowning victim while also trying to undo his/her duty belt? Several belt-keepers, then the actual duty belt, maybe a secondary weapon elsewhere, and also the radio mic clipped to the epaulet…and precious seconds are wasted. Unzip-and-drop alleviates that time-wasting predicament. However, leaving police gear anywhere, despite the reason for shedding it, becomes a categorical liability. Brazen “citizens” steal police cruisers if/when the opportunity presents. That same caliber of citizen would not even blink at the chance to walk off with an entire array of police equipment while the police owner does duty, unwittingly setting the scene for a nefarious punk whose mindset is opportunistic and capitalistic.

Wichita, Kansas police officer donning a duty vest while using his cruiser’s in-car computer. (Credit: Facebook/COPS)

Given our drowning victim scenario, the conundrum part also engenders if/when the equipment-safeguarding cop dives into the water full-bore with full gear. Like carrying a boat anchor into a body of water, all the weight of police gear does not bode well for a waterborne life-saving mission. If there are specs and blueprints on someone’s table, engineering waterproofing and resistant properties regarding cop stuff, I cherish the thought. But I have doubts.

We’ve explored the cons, so let’s examine one of the pros. Looking at the bright side, the Orono police force sees the advantage in stripping on duty: “The officers can also go back to the office and take these vests off to type their reports, obviously helping with their comfort. The vest can go on within a matter of seconds for when they need to quickly respond to calls.” True. I always felt relief when taking off my “barrel,” as I liked to tell my family.

Another advantage to break-away duty vests is explained by Orono police Chief Josh Ewing: “If an officer’s hurt and EMS has to get to their chest, they’re going to have to cut through the shirt, cut through the [ballistic] vest. These new vests they can unzip, take off, and get to the chest.” Let’s hope that easy access is never needed.

The Science of Cop Stuff

While cops encounter many pains in the ass otherwise known as “suspects,” the very equipment to safeguard against attacks and effect arrests can be hindrances to proper health. Companies sought to alleviate such physical woes. In the 1990s, I believe it was the Multnomah County, Oregon sheriff’s office whose deputies started sporting utility belts/straps (the same ones I previously dubbed as dangerous tethers). Similar to a clinical prosthetic piece of gear a chiropractor would prescribe for a lower-back pain ailment, MCSO deputies wore vertical suspenders at the base of which was a horizontal “band” wrapped around the human core. That design has since been supplanted for one or more reasons. In its place came utility vests—flak jackets—which bore the weight of most of a cop’s gear. The holstered firearm was the exception; it remains on the hip area. Ballistic vests were worn below the uniform. Nowadays, engineering models have combined most of those elements into one easy-on, easy-off piece.

Lower-holstered service weapons wrapped around the calf became en vogue among tactical police units. To some degree, this method certainly displaces some of the weight-bearing torso, therefore offsetting some of the problem. Debates about lower-set firearms centers on immediate proximity. That may be a tiny detail to some while it is vehemently contested by others. Reaching down versus simply pulling hand in to the hip-holstered weapon can be a debated dynamic.

I suppose the closest feature to getting a weapon fashioned on a vest is the Tazer. Along with just about every other typical duty belt weapon or tool, I started seeing Tazers “sleeved” on police tactical vests, more prominent over the past few years. That takes all the less-lethal stuff higher, to where the upper body can more easily sustain the haul, while leaving the service weapon in its traditional hipster position.

The one cool upgrade in the police tactical vest is that, whereas initially just engineered to hold most of a cops gear, it now also serves as ballistic protection, as exhibited in the Orono police model above. Manufacturers have made advancements by weaving the vest with protective Kevlar properties to help save lives of cops from gunfire while also remedying some of the anvil-like burdens of customary cop equipment; a consolidation of sorts.

This subject matter conjures when I were a young lad growing up in Brooklyn. All NYPD cops had the iconic holstered service weapon, a portable radio, a set of handcuffs and a “knight-stick,” a two-foot-long wooden club used as a defensive/repelling weapon. Today, that cumbersome club is replaced with the retractable ASP, the size of which matches a robustly-rolled Cuban cigar, cradled on a cop’s duty belt. Only recently have I seen utility vests in which the ASP is housed.

As mentioned above, I marvel at and back any designs currently being spec’d and look forward to any more salvation for our nation’s warriors.

Comm Center Blues

I started my law enforcement career as a police communications officer, largely working the midnight shift. As a police dispatcher, it is customary to be seated for inordinate periods of time with the radio console in front of you, a telephone bank, and multiple computer (status) screens encircling each radio operator’s position. Twisting like a tornado, police dispatchers get into the groove of doing the job while not realizing the ill-effects it has on the body.

It took a poll and reports of aches and pains suffered by a majority of emergency communications officers to compel the agency to cut a purchase order for ergonomic chairs. The new telecommunications thrones arrived and we were satiated. For some, however, it was too late. Chiropractors were routinely referred by colleagues hurting here and there, most often lower back dilemmas. I was one of those, and a heating pad was the most immediate remedy I had, well before our new chairs arrived.

It is common for on-duty cops to visit the dispatchers who send them on calls. That often implied taking a load off by sitting down in one of our pre-ergonomic chairs. It was a lesson to watch a cop, wrapped in a duty belt weighted with all the necessary gadgets to perform the job, grunt while upping from a chair.

It would be a few short years later that I was one of those grunting cops. Cops have each others back. Police officers have your back. Surpassing engineering and ergonomically catering to the cops is in everyone’s best interests.

(Credit: Facebook/Antioch Police Department)

Cost Factors

Like every other government agency, budgets are often choked from the get-go. Thus cost factors are forever debated when it comes to acquiring police equipment to better the department’s overall performance and efficiently fulfill mission objectives. Naturally, that often equates to expenses. In brief: cops get injured on the job during the organic course of duty. I witnessed duty-related injuries of police officers who, for a lengthy period, languished on “light duty” while combatting the seeming delay and drag of Workers’ Compensation. Many fought until it didn’t even matter any longer, finding themselves on the short-end of the stick after doing the duties to which they avowed.

Related ailments stemming from service provisions can be avoided. Proper duty gear augmentations are a win-win equation. Sure, it may cost more than traditional duty belting. However, weighing the cost of cops on light duty waivers (overtime compensation paid to other cops) and overworked street cops due to staff shortages is not only a lesson in expenses but also moral, ethical, and integrity principles: doing what’s right from the get-go is what cops are expected to preach. Why not offer them the same consideration and save taxpayers money while also preserving the health of law enforcers who serve on our behalf? No taxpayer likes waste; naturally, every tax-contributing citizen wants a happy ending when expense to them is involved.

Orono PD summed it up well: “These vests allow our officers to take all the weight off their hips and lower backs. The vests will allow us to distribute the weight evenly. We are doing this to prevent lower back and hip issues that could lead to disability and other health issues. We hope this will save the town money over time. Several of our officers already go to a chiropractor to alleviate pain.

As Orono police Officer Sarah Angelo boasted about her new duty vest, “I’ve only had mine on for several hours and I’m already finding that I used to have a problem with my hips rolling forward and my shoulders rolling forward. I’m standing up straighter, I’m sitting up straighter and my usual aches and pains are already alleviated.” Facts backed by physical users embody purpose-driven results which ought to influence other law enforcement agencies to follow suit.

One other crucial point regarding cost factors is that, like Orono PD, agencies can use funds derived from sources other than using tax dollars: “We are using drug forfeiture money and grant money to help with the costs” and acquisition of these Armor Express Traverse vests.

In typical police fashion, the cops present a solution to an age-old problem, often at little to no cost to the tax base.

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The opinions expressed here by contributors are their own and are not the view of OpsLens which seeks to provide a platform for experience-driven commentary on today's trending headlines in the U.S. and around the world. Have a different opinion or something more to add on this topic? Contact us for guidelines on submitting your own experience-driven commentary.
Stephen Owsinski

Stephen Owsinski is an OpsLens Content Manager and Contributor. Owsinski is a retired law enforcement officer whose career included assignments in the Uniformed Patrol Division and Field Training Officer (FTO) unit. He is currently a researcher and writer. Follow Stephen on Twitter @uniformblue.

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