I have a friend that works an afternoon shift traffic unit. Because he spends most of his time riding around in a patrol car, and because his waist measurement seems to expand at roughly the rate of one inch per year of age, he's carrying some extra weight. I joke with him that if he keeps it up, he'll be in real trouble when he's 60--and has a 60-inch waist!
Of course my friend is concerned, and is working to reduce the damage. He does have one advantage over many of his contemporaries, however--he has enough room on his duty belt for all of the new gear that coppers carry nowadays.
Back when I was a midnight shift taillight-chaser, I had a partner that was pretty thin. In fact, she was so skinny that she had trouble fitting a double speed-loader case on her belt, between the cartridge loops we also carried and her belt buckle. If we had half the gear then that officers haul around now, she never would have made it.
One more "memory lane" reference: Once upon a time, an officer had to make room for a holster, a handcuff case, and whatever spare ammunition carrier the department authorized. Some added a loop carrier for their flashlight or straight baton, and a few added a key ring. That was about it.
Then came portable radios, a second cuff case, two to three times as much ammunition as revolver shooters carried, an expandable baton and sheath, a utility knife in a belt sheath, an aerosol spray weapon in a holster, a pouch for a pair of "rubber gloves," a TASER in a crossdraw holster, and a mini-tactical flashlight. And I know I've missed a few items.
Aside from making us look like a walking hardware store, are there any ramifications of this for the average officer? What impact does this have on a daily patrol shift?
The most obvious issue is one of weight. A fully loaded duty rig is heavy! Even assuming that it somehow is properly balanced (and stays that way), the extra weight, coupled with the weight of a duty flashlight, a ballistic vest, boots, and the rest of an officer's uniform, translates to feeling like you're 25 or 30 pounds overweight. Carrying that, and running with it, climbing in and out of the car with it, and wrestling with it can really take a toll.
If the load is not balanced, then the disproportionate weight on one side can pull your back out of alignment (most officers I know already have bad backs, or at least it seems like most of them do). Sitting in a vehicle with gear bunched up around your waist can throw off your seated balance, making you even more prone to back and neck injury, and it makes it more difficult to control your vehicle.
Falling on your gear can cause injury. A number of years ago--about the time that many officers started carrying two sets of cuffs--in an effort to streamline the load, one manufacturer began marketing a relatively compact, side-by-side cuff case, intended to be worn in the small of your back. I actually tried one out, and because I need a little extra lumbar support, the mid-back placement felt sort of good.
A while later stories started floating around the law enforcement profession of officers being injured while wearing this particular cuff case design. Word was that coppers had fallen onto their back during struggles with suspects, and the cuff case had injured their spine.
Did it actually happen? Many of the tales were apocryphal, but no matter. It sounded like something that could happen, and most of us got rid of our double cuff cases.
Here's a simple question for you: How do you keep all that gear quiet? Officers have learned to manage their duty belts pretty well, but there's always a chance that your gear will squeak, rattle, jingle, or whatever, and usually at exactly the wrong time.
You can get hung up getting out of the car (safety belts are great--and should always be worn --but they do require some extra attention when dismounting). Heck, you can even get hung up getting out of an office chair.
Okay, one more historical note: Once upon a time, a chief that I worked for was in his office when a local fool squealed his tires right out in front of the station. The chief knew who it was, and the kid was on the chief's last nerve. The chief jumped up to run out to his car to go after the squealer, and when he did, his gun butt caught under the arm of his office chair. His momentum carried him halfway to the door of his office before he could get free of the chair, which had been dangling from his holster like a new piece of issued equipment. By then, the felonious squealer was long gone. Equipment-related weirdness is not a new phenomenon.
Probably the biggest tactical issue with duty rigs is weapon retention. Many departments still do not train their people in weapon retention, and many that do generally reference only the firearm. How, then, does an officer deal with retention issues when we have taught him or her to turn their "gun side" away from an offender that is trying to disarm them? In doing so, they expose the items on the other side of their duty belt to the bad guy. Depending on that particular department's load-out, they may be offering their TASER or expandable baton to the suspect.
The firearm is obviously of primary importance. After all, as long as the officer has his or her firearm, they are better armed than a violator who has taken any off their non-lethal weapons.
Officers must be trained to think through possible disarming scenarios, and to react instantly and appropriately to protect their sidearm. If they allow their attention to be divided--either through confusion, or lack of training--a suspect may find the opening he or she needs to seriously harm the officer. Thoughtful training on weapon retention issues, covering all the officer's equipment, is critical.
Light at the End of the Tunnel (or an oncoming train)?
Along with thoughtful equipment acquisition and proper training, some other notable efforts are underway to attempt to address this "overload" issue. Miniaturization is an evolving trend in all technology, and law enforcement equipment is no exception. Smaller and lighter equipment is constantly being developed. Smaller portable radios, lighter (and stronger) restraint devices, and smaller TASER devices are just some of the developments in this arena.
Occasionally, a manufacturer rolls out a combination product. Generally these products represent an effort to combine a flashlight and a baton, or a flashlight and an aerosol weapon, or a combination of all three. Some of these ideas are great, although not yet fully assimilated by the profession (An example is the TigerLight, a combination high quality duty light and OC canister). Others seem to create more problems than they solve, like attempts to combine aerosol weapons with firearms, thus creating a situation where an officer points a firearm at someone that he just intends to spray.
Of course, without these attempts at advancement by the manufacturing sector, there's a good chance we'd still be carrying oak nightsticks and "iron claw" come-alongs. While the road's a little bumpy, at least we're generally evolving in the right direction.
What NOT to do
There is one problem that keeps rearing its ugly head--the idea that, when we provide officers with another--perhaps newer--force and control option, we should take something else away. Whenever I hear of this happening, it's usually an attempt to save money. We heard it when OC spray came into vogue, "...now that we have the spray, we can take away batons..." In the current context, we often hear, "...now that we have TASERs, we no longer need OC spray..." I've even heard of departments that are considering cutting back on their defensive tactics training.
These are all bad ideas. Officers need more options, not fewer. All technology is prone to fail at exactly the wrong moment. Not every situation calls out for a TASER, or for OC spray, or whatever specific implement you want to consider.
In order to keep officers as safe as possible, several viable force and control alternatives, adequately supported by policy and training, should be kept in the officer's toolbox--or, in this case, on their "Bat Belt."
Stay safe, and wear your vest! (and Buckle Up!)