BOISE, Idaho — Police duty belts carry all the equipment officers should need during a standard 10-hour shift. At a minimum, they run anywhere between 15 to 20 pounds, but the weight of these belts could also be the cause of long-term injuries.
Many officers and medical professionals believe load-bearing vests may be the solution. The vests are said to take the burden off an officer's lower back and evenly distribute the weight across their torsos, but those vests also raise safety concerns.
Those concerns are why cities like Boise are still considering modifications but with no definite plans for immediate change.
Boise Police Chief Ryan Lee said the department is currently reviewing uniform modifications but have many factors to consider.
“There’s a training component that goes into this," Lee said. "There’s an officer safety component in that when we have all this external equipment visible people will, and it’s in my experience from the department that I came from, certain people will be attracted to it, and they’ll grab at it. They’ll also grab and use the vest in itself as a handle during a physical confrontation.”
Dr. Rob Hilver is the founder, medical director, and lead physician of the Emergency Responders Health Center in Boise. He's been treating first responders across the Treasure Valley for almost 20 years. He says he sees about 10-15 police officers in his clinic daily, and of those officers coming in, five to ten percent experience lower back pain.
Chief Lee says he's aware of the toll duty belts take on an officer's health long-term, but the public may not understand.
"I don't think the average citizen quite realizes the wear-and-tear physically on your body that a police career causes. They're from the more mundane things like wearing an extra 40 pounds on your body every day," Lee explains.
Dr. Hilver says that over time, chronic sitting or position changes while wearing duty belts can create significant injuries.
"If you add a compressed external force across the lower back, you're going to impinge the soft tissues," he explains.
Medical professionals aren't able to say with complete certainty that duty belts are solely to blame for injuries on the job, but they and other officers are looking to external load-bearing vests to help solve the problem.
"The idea is you’re taking all of that weight and putting on a fast harness so the weight is better distributed," says Dr. Hilver.
But fixing one problem may create another. Dr. Hilver says there are studies that show there tend to be fewer complaints about lower back pain with external load-bearing vests, but there is an increase in upper back pain.