Many Wichita police officers switching to vests to hold radio, tools

Dozens of Wichita police officers will be sporting a new look soon.

They’ll be wearing vests to carry their radio, baton and other items that have been commonly placed on their duty belt.

The vests — widely used in the U.S. military — are designed to give officers more room for the weapons and tools, as well as ease the burden on their backs.

“Our duty belts, when Chief (Williams) was on the streets, his belt was about 12 pounds,” Officer Justin Cole said. “Fast forward to today, the typical belt is 22 to 30 pounds.

“Wearing that all day...”

Cole, who is based at Patrol North, is one of four officers who tested load-bearing vests over the past several months. He’s been wearing his current vest for the past six months.

“I love it,” he said. “I enjoy it more and more every day.”

Another 180 Wichita police officers have ordered the vests. Officers must pay for the vests out of their clothing allowance.

Cole said it’s well worth it.

The molle vest features a nylon mesh running horizontally across the front, into which officers can strap their radios, Tasers, camera gear and other items where they want. Officers must keep their service weapon on their duty belt.

“Due to training and muscle memory, the duty weapon will always be on the belt and not allowed on the vest,” Cole said in an e-mail response to questions.

The vest shifts the load of the items from the waist to the shoulders, making it easier to handle, and it frees up space on the duty belt. They’re handmade for each officer, Cole said.

Using the vest has dropped the weight on his duty belt from 23 to 12 pounds, he said.

“I’ve gained a lot more flexibility,” he said. “I’m able to run and move better than I was before, having all that stuff strapped to my waist.”

The vests will be particularly popular with smaller-framed officers, Cole said, because many of them had run out of room on their duty belts with the recent additions of such items as Tasers and cameras.

“Some of them didn’t even have room” on their belts for the cameras, he said.

The vests have pockets in them that allow officers to insert body armor panels – essentially moving the protection against bullets from inside the uniform to outside. The design means officers can remove the vests when they’re working at a substation.

“On hot days, you don’t have the vest continually in contact with your skin,” Cole said. “You can easily take it off.”

While they were testing the vest, Cole said, officers discovered an unexpected benefit: the vests offer enough room for smaller-framed female officers to add “trauma plates” – designed to deflect higher-velocity rounds – and thus enhance their safety. That wasn’t an option with bullet-proof vests worn inside the uniform.

Cole is still figuring out where he wants to keep everything – but that’s one feature he likes about the new vest. Rather than being limited to where pockets are, he can move things up or over an inch if he needs to.

As the vests come into use, Cole said, he expects more and more officers to begin using them.

In fact, he predicts perhaps half the force could be using the vests within a year – or more than 300 officers.