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Women-Specific Police Gear, Part 1
Written by Michelle Ray
A lot has changed since women first entered the world of policing in the early 1900s. Even though women served in the same capacity as their male counterparts, it wasn’t until 1948 that a woman was provided with an official police uniform. Female uniforms and gear saw almost no improvement until the mid-1980s when garment manufacturers started making police uniforms in women’s sizes.
Today, there are more and more women in law enforcement. Unfortunately, female-specific gear hasn’t progressed fast enough to meet the growing demand for better fitting uniforms and equipment. Most police gear is still designed for men, and smaller versions of men’s gear just doesn’t work for women.
The local police supply store isn’t much help. Most don’t stock a large variety of female-specific merchandise, though they do have the ability to order it. Because this equipment isn’t showcased or provided, female law enforcement personnel may not be aware of a lot of products available that can make them more comfortable as well as safer and more effective.
Female officers are left with the burden of searching for products on the Internet, making selections without trying on the apparel and hoping that it fits. Ill-fitting equipment can cause a myriad of health and safety hazards, both for the officer and for the citizens they encounter. Female police officers need to be aware that better products are available, ones that better meet their needs and allow them to operate at their full capacity.
Regardless of gender, a police officer needs to be able to carry all the “tools of the trade” on his or her person. The duty belt became popular in the 1950s, referred to as the “Sam Browne belt” after a British General. Originally, the Sam Browne belt used a shoulder strap to keep some of the weight off the hips. Since then, the shoulder strap was largely omitted, and the current duty belt was developed: a 2.25-inch wide leather or webbed nylon belt.
Long gone are the days of carrying just a revolver, a drop pouch and handcuffs on the duty belt. Today, the typical police officer carries up to 12 pounds of equipment on his/her belt. Therefore, duty belts must be robust enough to carry the heavy equipment.
Unfortunately, due to the physical nature of a woman’s body (namely the hips), robust duty belts aren’t always a practical or comfortable fit. When women stand upright, the lower edge of the duty belt often sits right on the hip bones, which leads to bruising, constant pressure on the pelvic girdle and lower back pain. The pain can also be present when sitting in a patrol car as the belt edges dig into the body. The officer must accommodate by sitting further up to allow room for the duty belt in the car seat, which creates an unnatural curvature in the spine.
Female-specific alternatives for a more comfortable, better fitting duty belt are available. One solution is a “Sally Browne” belt. This leather duty belt is specifically manufactured for females. It is shaped with an obvious curve, which accommodates the natural curvature of a woman’s hips; the bottom edge of the belt flares out to follow the hip profile. Most departments provide female officers with a men’s straight duty belt without knowing women’s duty belts exist. Initially quite uncomfortable, the leather belt takes several months to “break in,” i.e., to adapt to the hip curvature of a woman.
Another option is to wear a ballistic, webbed nylon belt. These belts have been constructed to be flexible to the body, but rigid enough to hold heavy equipment. Nylon belts are lighter, adjustable, and do not have the typical large brass/metal buckle, which can also be bothersome. Unfortunately, some departments frown upon nylon, as it may appear less professional.
Another alternative, which has become a newer trend for men, is the use of duty belt suspenders. With the need to place more items on the duty belt, such as TASERs, cameras and microphones, the load on the belt has grown throughout the years, causing the belt to be cinched up to stay secure and restrict movement. Suspenders allow some of the weight from the waist and lower back to be supported by the shoulders, just like the original Sam Browne. This allows for easier breathing and increased comfort, especially during a 12-hour shift. The use of suspenders has also become increasingly popular among male officers with lower back pain.
A fourth alternative is the new development of padded belts and belt liners. Safariland offers a duty belt padded liner which serves as a buffer between the body and duty belt. If cost is a concern, a padded liner may be more cost-effective than purchasing a new duty belt, such as one recently released by Bianchi. This ergonomic belt (marketed to both men and women) has cells of padding spaced along the entire underside of the belt, allowing users to carry the weight more comfortably. Either of these options will help eliminate bruising from the weight of the duty belt sitting on a woman’s hips for extended periods.
Unfortunately, some departments are very rigid regarding the solidarity in appearance of their officers and may not allow the utilization of suspenders or ballistic nylon gear. Women whose departments require the use of a leather belt can soak the belt in warm water for eight hours. They can then place the equipment on the belt and wear it wet to work. This softens the leather and allows the belt to conform to the normal curvature of a woman’s hips.
Besides the hips, the torso is another body part that is very different between men and women. Proportionally, a woman has a shorter torso than a man, placing the hips relatively higher. This may not initially seem like such a big deal in relation to equipment needs, but it actually affects one of the most important pieces of equipment on a duty belt: the holster.
There are many kits available to move the position of an existing holster on the belt to provide a much softer, smoother and more comfortable draw. These are not necessarily female specific, but they are effective in tweaking equipment to fit the needs of the individual officer.
Three different mounting positions exist for a sidearm holster on a duty belt: high ride, mid-rise and low ride. High ride holsters, of course, carry the weapon very high on the belt, which provides excellent weapon retention. However, due to the short torso and arm length of some women, this position can become very inconvenient when seated, as the handle of the weapon can sometimes reach the officer’s armpit. Drawing the weapon may prove to be very awkward and unsafe because of the need to reach so far up to remove it.
In an effort to accommodate more police officers and body types, most departments rely on the mid-rise holster. This holster has a very neutral mounting position in relation to the high-ride and low-ride alternatives. A mid-rise holster is more universal; however, even low-waisted women and some men may have a slightly uncomfortable and somewhat unsmooth draw with this holster. In these cases, a low-ride holster may give them the extra room they need for safety and comfort.
The low-ride holster can lower the body of the gun about 1.5 inches. It allows easy access to the weapon for a quick and efficient single-motion draw. Women and men with shorter arms can also benefit from this holster placement. Yet due to its positioning on the belt, it may present a problem with the bottom of the holster or weapon digging into the seat of your patrol car.
Other Holster Solutions
Another alternative to weapon positioning is the use of a drop-down (thigh) holster. Women can utilize this if there is no room on the belt or simply if it provides a better fit or feel. Drop-down holsters attach to the duty belt in a vertical fashion on the gun-carrying side of an officer. They are manufactured in nylon and leather and can provide quick access to the weapon.
If you are interested in keeping the same holster you purchased (or were issued) for monetary concerns, there are still other options. Kits are available to alter the positioning of an existing holster to better conform to the officer. One such kit spaces the weapon away from the body, which can accommodate the contour of the female body. This kit can also aid male and female officers to accommodate belly size.
Another available kit drops the existing holster down on the body to allow for easier access. This kit may prevent the need to purchase an additional holster, which can be quite costly. If these kits seem appealing, you may want to enlist the help of your department’s uniform code to ensure that all safety precautions are met.
It is quite common for female officers to voice concerns regarding their holsters. Holsters are very rigid and unforgiving, and the edges can dig into the hip bones and curves of some officers, causing almost a permanent bruise. Even returning to work after a short vacation can be quite uncomfortable as our bodies heal from wearing a duty belt.
If your holster seems to dig into your body and cause bruising or pain, one product available to combat this is a holster-mounting platform. Safariland offers a version of this product available for mid-rise and low-ride holsters. It provides a foam platform akin to the size of your holster that is threaded onto your duty belt along with the holster. The layer of foam between your body and the polymer holster acts as a barrier. It can make a 12-hour shift a lot less painful.
Plainclothes officers and detectives are not left out of this problematic concern. Often, women’s pantsuits have small, flimsy belt loops that fit only a decorative belt, and the jacket is form-fitting, which would expose a handgun situated on the waist. A shoulder harness/holster can be an easy fix, but large breast size and clothing can be a concern for a quick and easy draw.
LawSuits is a company that manufactures women’s suits with features geared toward law enforcement, such as a waistband strong enough to withstand the weight of a weapon, belt loops big enough to accommodate a thick belt, specialized inside pockets, and a jacket long enough to hide your sidearm.
Undercover and off-duty officers can utilize other means of holster concealment, such as a pocket holster, an inside-the-waistband holster, a belly band, purses with sewn-in holsters and ankle holsters.
Next month we will cover women-specific body armor, duty guns, sunglasses, patrol gloves, patrol uniforms, footwear and expandable batons.
Female-specific Cell Phone Risk
Our personal cell phones and smart phones have become an integral piece of equipment in the line of police work. Whether calling dispatch, dictating reports or photographing evidence, even having the police radio, we feel totally disconnected from the world without a cell phone. With dwindling or nonexistent space on our duty belts, female police officers have been using the front breast pockets of their uniforms to hold their cell phones. Although convenient, this could be quite detrimental to our health.
Emerging evidence from the American Cancer Society has shown that women suffering from breast cancer who carry cell phones in their front breast pocket or sports bra developed that cancer on the side where they carried their cell phone.
Cell phones, even when not on an active call, release an electromagnetic field (EMF), which is actually a form of low radiation. (That is how cell phones can be pinged by investigators.) Prolonged radiation exposure affects our cellular makeup, causing an increase in oxidative stress, increased free radicals, which leads to a decrease in antioxidants in nearby tissues.
Women are not alone. Studies have shown that men who carry their cell phones in their front pants pocket have suffered a lowered sperm count and are also subject to breast cancer.
Whenever possible, limit the use of cell phones, purchase a cell phone with a lower specific absorption rate (SAR), use the speakerphone/hands-free option, or purchase a cell phone case that deflects EMFs away from your head. The company Bounce (www.case-mate.com) manufactures cases that contain the only technology proven by FCC-certified labs to reduce cell phone radiation while maintaining full signal strength.
Michelle Ray has been a police officer for eight and a half years, the last seven with the Wentzville PD. She currently teaches at the Eastern Missouri Police Academy.
Photos by Cheryl Witte.
Published in Law and Order, May 2011
Rating : 10.0
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