Police officers in Windham are finding some relief from their 25 pound duty belts though the new cross over carrier vests that provide space for all of their gear and their bullet resistant vest plates.
A lot of officers were having back problems, said Officer Matt Cyr. There was discussion about the heavy belts officers were wearing over their 10 to 12 hour shifts, which included getting in and out of their cruisers multiple times.
There is a national trend moving toward this more ergonomic way to carry necessary gear. Traditional officers wear a bullet proof vest under their dress shirts, this new look puts the vest and the gear on the chest and back of an officer. If they want to take the vest off while writing reports in the station, they can do that easier with the new vests. It’s a way for them to cool down on hot days as well.
When former Chief Rick Lewsen started as a police officer, he carried a gun, handcuffs and a radio, said Cyr. Now, gear consists of a flashlight or two, gun, Taser, portable radio, two sets of handcuffs, rubber gloves, pepper spray, asp (an expandable baton), flashlight, two magazines, portable radio, tourniquet, Leatherman, audio recorder for video recorder in the cars, and K-9 officers carry an automatic door opener. Imagine fitting all of that on an officer with a small waist, Cyr said. All except the firearm and the maybe the radio moved on to the vest.
“This is an extreme effort to make the job healthier for police. (Officers) are still approachable and have a friendly a look as possible,” said Cyr. “We carry all these items to have these options to keep from seriously hurting someone.”
There are a few different models of the cross over external vests. One has a zipper down the front another skips the zipper and uses Velcro. They have many pockets and straps for hooking gear onto.
“It was amazing the difference,” said Cyr about transitioning to the vest. The hardest part for Cyr was remembering where his flashlight was. After 20 years of muscle memory, he had to retrain himself, he said. “It takes all that weight off the back and waist and uses different muscle groups. It’s a lot more comfortable.”
“I like them and what the purpose is,” said Windham’s Police Chief Kevin Schofield. “We’re not trying to say that we’re becoming a militaristic organization.”
The Federal Government did a study and asked for solutions to the issue of carrying the duty belt on the hips which pulls on officers’ backs. It was found that “External vests may be better for an officers’ health and their backs,” said Cyr.
Windham’s human resources director Phyllis Moss looked at the health of the officers. Part of her job is to keep the worker’s comprehensive plan claims to a minimum. She applied for a Maine Municipal Association grant to cover the costs of the vests. It was approved and now, each year, the department receives a few more vests for officers who need them. The vests are replaced every five years.
“My back doesn’t hurt anymore. They are also awesome in the car. There’s a lot more room and we’re not ripping the car seat,” said officer Tricia Buck, who was the first to get an external vest last fall.
The vests are optional at this time, but Cyr anticipates that most officers will be wearing them in the near future. “The majority do want these external vests.”
Sgt. Bill Andrew received his external vest in July. “As far as the admin aspect, it’s easier to back up an officer. I just zipped it and went,” he said.
Nine officers have the external vests now and five more will get them through the next grant.
“The biggest message is that the health piece is the biggest reason for having them. It’s a different look, but we’re carrying all the same equipment, just in a different way,” said Cyr.
When Windham’s school resource officer Jeff Smith first starting wearing his external vest, he sent an email out to the entire high school staff to explain why his uniform was different. “The staff was not concerned. When we explain why we are wearing them it’s different,” said Cyr.
The community was also asked on the department’s Facebook page a year and a half ago about transitioning to an external carrier and the support was overwhelming, said Cyr.
“We expect that some will be intimidated by this. We will ask them how they feel about it and explain why (we have them). People got used to police wearing tools around their belt because it was the only option they had, it was accepted.
“Society is expecting the street cop to do more over the years – and rightfully so. They want us to go in immediately with what we have to stop a person from hurting someone,” Cyr said.
The vests make it so the officers will have what they need to do their job and keep them healthy enough to do their job to the best of their abilities.