AUSTIN (KXAN) — All 1,050 patrol officers with the Austin Police Department will soon have exterior load-bearing vests to hold the majority of their tools, rather than a duty belt.
APD designed the vests with a contractor last year after a number of officers came forward with complaints about back issues from wearing heavy duty belts.
“The way it’s set up now with handcuffs normally behind your back, that was causing so much pressure from the seat behind when they’re driving,” APD Assistant Chief Todd Smith said. “That pressure was compressing in that lumbar area, and so we had a lot of officers that would have to stay home with back pain. They’re getting back surgery, and the doctors are like, ‘We need to remove that pressure in that lumbar area.'”
So far, forty-seven officers with proof of a medical condition related to the use of the duty belt have already received the vests.
“I have not heard any complaints since officers have gone to this,” Smith said.
APD has already ordered the vests for every patrol officer, and they should be available to them in the next month or two.
“If we can distribute the weight through the upper body verses just always being on the hips, it’s found it’s a lot better, especially for the patrol officers driving around,” Smith said.
A belt still needs to be worn to hold officers’ guns, tasers and batons, because they’ve formed muscle memory grabbing them from the belt, but other equipment such as handcuffs, flashlights, radios, magazines and pepper spray may be worn in the vest. Duty belts often support up to about 25 pounds of equipment.
Bullet proof protectors that are currently worn in a shirt under officers’ uniforms can also slide into the exterior vests, allowing officers to remove the heavy, thick bullet protection when they’re working in an office or their cars. Smith says that will help officers in the summer, when they get overheated.
As APD investigates what caused an officer’s duty belt to slip, distracting him as he was trying to handcuff a stabbing suspect last week during a deadly call, some are hopeful the new vests could help prevent a similar situation from occurring.
“I frankly wasn’t surprised, because that is such a heavy piece of equipment,” said Austin Public Safety Commissioner and former criminology professor Meghan Hollis.
Hollis says she likes the idea of the weight of officers’ equipment being more equally distributed with the vests.
“It’s good for their backs. It’s good for their health. It also potentially could alleviate situations like this,” Hollis said.
The vests cost close to $300 each, meaning the department has invested close to $330,000 in them.