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December 22, 2010
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Tim Dees Police Tech & Gear
with Tim Dees

An end to duty belt pain?

New tech may resolve back problems without a vest or suspenders

Old West gunslingers wore their sidearms and ammo on a gun belt, and cops have been using that platform for their equipment ever since. With the addition of handcuffs, baton, radio, glove pouch, TASER, and whatever, the belt became heavier, and now there’s seldom any room for more gear. That extra and unbalanced weight brought on the added issue of back and hip pain, especially for officers of smaller stature.

Police gun belts or duty belts are often called Sam Browne belts, after British General Sam Browne. General Browne won the Victoria Cross, analogous to the U.S. Medal of Honor, for his actions to take down a gun crew that was firing on his men. In so doing, he lost his left arm in a sword fight. He continued his military career, but had some difficulty carrying his officer’s sword in a scabbard on a traditional belt. The scabbard attached to the belt with a clip called a “frog,” and the frog didn’t grip the belt tightly. Wearers usually had to grasp the frog with their left hands while drawing the sword with the right.

To compensate, Browne added a cross belt going from his left hip to his right shoulder, which held the frog in one place. The design was copied in the British and other countries’ military uniforms, and was picked up by many police agencies to hold pistol holsters in place. The cross belt has been eliminated from most police uniforms, but remnants of the original design are still in use. Modern Sam Browne belts are half or fully lined to stiffen them and support the weight of the equipment worn on them, and incorporates a false buckle with hooks on the back to attach to hardware on the opposite end.

Now that Sam Brownes have to accommodate a lot more hardware than a sword or a pistol, the best solutions to better distribute the weight thus far involve suspenders, a load-bearing vest, or some combination thereof to take some of the load off of the hips and lower back and shift it to the upper body. These don’t fit with the traditional appearance of a police officer, and suspenders have a way of getting caught up on whatever protrusions happen to be in the officer’s operating environment. Load-bearing vests are closely associated with combat troops, which is not the image most agencies want to present.

Most of the weight of a Sam Browne is borne by a protrusion at the top of the femur (thigh bone), called the trochanter. The trochanter is the “point” of the hip at its highest point and farthest out to the sides from the midline. Well, Atlas Load Bearing Equipment has developed a duty belt add-on that distributes the weight of the belt over a larger area of the hips and pelvis, taking some of the load off of the trochanter. The add-on consists of two carbon fiber plates attached to the inside of the duty belt at either side, and two base plates threaded onto the underbelt or trouser belt.

The “tacplates” attach to the duty belt with long plastic zip ties - a special low-profile, high-strength variant called a Cobra-Tie. The precise position of the tacplates is determined by the wearer’s anatomy and the placement of the gear on the belt. The wearer threads two zip ties vertically through the loops on the tacplates so that the ties will fit between equipment items. Once good placement is achieved for fit and comfort, the ties are closed and the excess material snipped off. This is a one-time fitting process, although the ties can always be cut off and the process repeated if adjustments are needed. It’s possible to use regular belt keepers in place of the zip ties, if desired.

The tacplates use Velcro to mate to the base plates threaded onto the underbelt. The wearer first applies the strong or gun side, then wraps the duty belt around to mate the offside base plate and tacplate together. This keeps the belt from sliding around the circumference of the waist. The wearer then applies belt keepers in front and back to stabilize the belt vertically. There is a video on the Atlas LBE website that describes the process of applying the tacplates and how they work to better distribute the weight of the duty belt.

Atlas LBE maintains that the tacplates “act like a cantilever bridge to channel the load of your duty belt to the ground.” The plates are almost completely hidden by the equipment on the belt, so there is no alteration to the traditional appearance to the uniform.

At $170, this isn’t an inexpensive piece of gear, but it is relatively risk-free. Atlas LBE offers a 60-day refund of the purchase price if you’re not completely satisfied with the results. Of course, if you’re living with chronic back and/or hip pain from a duty belt, getting rid of it for that price is a great bargain.

About the author

Tim Dees is a writer, editor, trainer, and former law enforcement officer. After 15 years as a police officer with the Reno Police Department and elsewhere in Northern Nevada, Tim taught criminal justice as a full-time professor and instructor at colleges in Wisconsin, West Virginia, Georgia, and Oregon.

He was also a regional training coordinator for the Oregon Dept. of Public Safety Standards & Training, providing in-service training to 65 criminal justice agencies in central and eastern Oregon.

Tim has written more than 300 articles for nearly every national law enforcement publication in the United States, and is the author of The Truth About Cops, published by Hyperink Press. In 2005, Tim became the first editor-in-chief for Officer.com, moving to the same position for LawOfficer.com at the beginning of 2008. He now writes on applications of technology in law enforcement from his home in SE Washington state.

Tim holds a bachelor’s degree in biological science from San José State University, a master’s degree in criminal justice from The University of Alabama, and the Certified Protection Professional credential from ASIS International. He serves on the executive board of the Public Safety Writers Association.

Dees can be reached at tim.dees@policeone.com.

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