Military and Police

Cops’ Love/Hate Relationship with Living in a Barrel

Ballistic vests: that incredible shell lined with Kevlar to protect cops from gunfire is both a marvelous piece of equipment as well as a suffocating barrel which police officers live in like a safe and secure turtle does in its shell. But the minutes, hours, and days of duty in a tightly-wrapped shell has its drawbacks for cops, though. I never asked a turtle’s opinion, but I do have mine.

My police department’s policy was: If the city purchases a ballistic vest for you, you must wear it while in any official capacity as a city cop. Fair enough, especially since those things are not necessarily affordable on a cop’s salary, certainly not with this cop’s successful brood of food consumers buzzing around the kitchen. I’ve since retired, so I no longer have to worry about it. I’m referring to the vest discomfort; my battalion of food magicians is another story altogether.

Before the current ergonomic versions of ballistic vests were constructed of Kevlar plates sewn into utility vests housing police accoutrements on the topside, the style was a solitary “bullet-proof” vest Velcro-strapped under the police uniform. I still have that certain tic, that shoulder twitch, conditioned by years of wearing that tight yet protective barrel. Always trying to settle it and have it conform better around the body. And in Florida, wear I spent my entire law enforcement career, the grueling discomfort was most often exacerbated by that flame ball in the sky which tanners adore, the radiant orange thing that always set at dusk while the humidity maintained its seeming steam. The academy never taught survival skills to overcome crimefighting in a sauna…for successive 12-hour night-shift stints. All the downed water with which I rehydrated was absorbed by the vest, like a sponge marinating in saltwater.

That marvelous product, Febreze became my best friend both on- and off-duty, even if it too had a shelf-life. It always wafted fresh aromatics in the beginning of the shift; near the end, more like parfum de Dumpster.

Besides the foulness collected by ballistic vests from working in hot climates, the feel was never right for me. Even when changing out older vests for new, I never settled. And that tic I referred too was noticeably omnipresent. But I wasn’t necessarily alone; I noticed other police cohorts also maneuvering bodily, like a snake was crawling on the inside of their back. To take it off was euphoria! Even police canines tacitly agree with that assessment, as seen here:

When The Uniform Finally Comes Off

When The Uniform Finally Comes Off…(From our friends at: @Police_videos on IG)

Posted by First Responder Task Force on Tuesday, December 11, 2018

That footage lends well to the notion that humans and dogs get along quite well, even relating to certain occupational discomforts shared by both species. The dog lifts a leg; we lift the toilet lid. Dogs free of ballistic vests provoke the happy dance; same for Homo sapien cops. You just saw it for yourself, in the video, so…

The cover photo above this article depicts both styles of ballistic vests cops wear in American society: internal (layered) and external (topical). Talk to any number of cops and you will likely receive varying likes/dislikes for either of the two designs. I get that the underlayer type is designed to be form-fitting and, therefore, not very breathable. Manufacturers have sought to make body armor more conducive, lending to current external models resembling military flak jacket designs. I never wore the latter but have learned from other cops who don this type that, although there is a looseness with zippered models, that slack tends to sway when in rapid motion like, say, a foot pursuit. The Velcro style, however, lands us right back to square one: a tight-fitting protective layer. Every foot pursuit I was involved in, it always felt like the elephant never lifted from my chest when it was all over for the criminal gazelles who failed to “freeze.”

Regarding the external-style vests, watch any reality-based cop show and you will witness many police officials hanging their hands in the open neck line or arm cutouts, seemingly pulling the fabric away from their bodies. Even if only for a fractional difference, those hands ought never be “hung up,” as my defensive tactics (DT) instructors/colleagues have opined.

Furthermore, some cops have nothing to opine because they choose not to wear a ballistic vest.

A rebellious police supervisor I had early in my career opted out of the city’s A or B choices for its police officers to wear or not wear body armor. Simply had to sign a contract either way. If opting out, the officer had to acknowledge he/she would indemnify the city/police department by signing a “hold-harmless” agreement. Conversely, signing documents that proclaimed desires to have/wear body armor paid-for and provided by the city was requisite. That same affidavit reminded each consignee that punishment would be the result if that officer was observed without ballistic vest while officially on duty.

Despite my whining and complaintive tone regarding discomfort of working in a barrel and dripping my DNA in/on some crime scenes (I always denoted temps when I wrote reports), I couldn’t comprehend any law enforcement officer not wanting to wear any protective measure available, especially at no cost to him/herself.

Speaking of cost to self, one squad-mate of mine couldn’t take the heat either, so he went shopping at Galls and purchased an in-car cooling system designed specifically for those donning body armor in oven-like conditions. Quartermaster’s Cool Cop Body Armor Air Conditioning system was his partner. Personally and professionally, I didn’t care for that remedy. Albeit more directly pushing cool air from the police cruiser’s A/C system, I thought being tethered presented an officer-safety issue and added to the excessive bog of police equipment in the tight “rolling office” compartment. Effective in one way but creating matters in another imperative regard.

Cool Cop Body Armor Air Conditioning system is on the market for cops wearing ballistic vests, piping cool air directly into body armor. (Quartermaster.com)

Some police colleagues of mine were/are also serving in the military, sometimes called up for a stint in any of the Middle Eastern nations upon whose hot and sandy lands we were/are partaking in freedom-developments. One particular police buddy of mine, who served as an MP in the U.S. Army, called desert patrols “shake and bake”—exploring remote villages while being scorched under the blistering sun, exacerbated by a thick flak vest weighted by tons of equipment.

In that regard, I am admittedly embarrassed to whine about my state-side patrols while encumbered in my protective barrel. I know I was fortunate to have such protection and be alive to talk about it versus, well…you know. Gotta be alive to have the opportunity to write about love/hate relationships, barrels, and turtles, eh?

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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