When Wichita police Sgt. Kelly O Brien first began looking into the use of duty vests for officers to carry their tactical gear five years ago, he was skeptical that they would be an improvement from the belts cops commonly used. It didn t take long for him to change his mind, though.
I love em, O Brien said. Chances are, Wichita residents who come across an officer on duty will see them in the vest. Perhaps two-thirds or more of officers on patrol wear the vests while on duty now, said Capt.
Brent Allred, who oversees the department s training bureau. The vests are lined with fabric fastener strips, allowing officers flexibility in where they place gear such as a Taser, body camera, retractable baton, ammunition and handcuffs. Those items, other than the just-issued body cameras, used to go on an officer s duty belt, along with their gun.
But all that gear adds up, O Brien said. An officer typically carries 28 pounds of gear on duty, and that can be hard on a body. O Brien said he first began looking into duty vests when three well-conditioned officers under his command developed back injuries so severe doctors recommended surgery.
Those doctors also recommended the use of vests to shift that extra weight from the hips and low back to the torso, which is better able to carry the extra weight. We started interviewing retired police officers, O Brien said. We could not find a retired police officer without a back or hip problem caused by years of carrying gear on their duty belts.
The department had eight officers two in each bureau use the vests as a test for six months, O Brien said. The results were so positive that the vests were made available as an option officers could purchase using their clothing allowance. The vests have space for the bulletproof plates that officers wear while on duty.
Officer Frank Silva has worn the vest for three years now. Other than their duty weapon, which must remain on the belt, officers have the option of placing their other gear wherever it is most comfortable on their vests. It s a lot more comfortable than a duty belt, especially during the summer, Silva said.
The vests have a strap in the back that can be used to pull a wounded officer to safety if necessary, he said. The vests can be easily removed if an officer is doing paperwork or is back in the squad room. It s like a microwave, basically, in the summer because of the body armor plates, he said, so any opportunity to slip the vests off for even a few minutes is welcome.
That s a more challenging proposition for officers who wear their bulletproof vests beneath their uniform shirts. Some police officers with narrow waists and petite body frames have not been able to fit all of their gear on a duty belt, O Brien said. One female officer is so petite she couldn t wear a bulletproof vest beneath her uniform shirt.
Thanks to the duty vest, for the first time in her career, she s been able to have that additional level of protection while she s on the street, O Brien said. Police officers in other cities now have gas masks and first-aid kits on their duty vests, Silva said, and Wichita could follow suit some day. With a duty vest, he said, there s room for that additional gear.
Silva said he hopes duty vests always remain an option for police officers. It takes some getting used to, wearing it, he said. A seat belt can get caught in the tactical gear, he said.
Eating can be tricky, too. It s like wearing a bib sometimes, Silva said. But O Brien and Silva both say the vests positives easily outweigh any inconveniences.
If using the vest can prevent long-term back and hip injuries, O Brien said, it s a win.