Load-Bearing Vests Migrate from Troops to Cops

(Photo by Courtney Lamdin/Milton Independent)(Photo by Courtney Lamdin/Milton Independent)

The use of load-bearing vests is migrating from troops to cops as more law enforcement agencies look to curb how much weight an officer or sheriff has to carry around his or her waist.

Over the past decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. soldiers and Marines adopted different types of load-bearing equipment and backpacks, from the Modular Lightweight Load-carrying Equipment, or MOLLE (pronounced “Molly”), to the Improved Load Bearing Equipment, or ILBE, to reduce the risk of developing musculoskeletal injuries.

Now, officers at police departments from Chicago to New York are donning external vest carriers that can hold equipment traditionally worn on the belt. Manufacturers are responding in kind, with a slew of products available from such companies as JG Uniforms, Safariland, Atlantic Tactical, 5.11 and Blauer.

“I got one and love it,” one police officer told Military.com. “We can put things on the vest where we want but they don’t look too ‘tactical’ and military. It takes a ton of stuff off your belt. All I carry on my belt now is my radio, keys, gun and a small glove pouch in the back. The vest comes off super easy if I have to make an arrest and need to do administrative stuff or if I have to go in the water for a rescue.”

Not all of his colleagues have been quick to embrace the new technology, however.

“Some of the more traditional guys made fun at first,” the officer said. “But in the last year, more guys are buying them and loving them. It takes time with cops. We are natural skeptics. The best thing I got out of the whole process was having cops with 20 years of experience who never wore vests wear them now and tell me they never would have worn them if not for the external carrier.”

And it’s not just big-city departments getting in on the trend.

For example, police officers in Milton, a town in northern Vermont, last year shelled out their own money to buy external vest carriers, according to an article by Courtney Lamdin, a reporter for the Milton Independent newspaper.

“I didn’t want to end up with a wrecked back, basically,” K9 Officer Jason Porter told the newspaper. “For $250, to have something that might not cause me injury and will work out better just seems to be worth the price.”

About the Author

Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of Military.com. He can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.
  • Lance

    More militarizing of Police.

    • straps

      Not so. Same gear and far, far more efficient layout.

      The Sam Browne was a great belt for hanging a revolver and a truncheon–which is what cops wore when policing became a profession. The load evolved (and increased) to include Taser, chemical spray, ASP, radio, 2 sets of cuffs, flashlight, semi-auto with light, 3 magazines and in more and in more agencies, a ruggedized data device. But the load carriage did not. Until now.

      Crye’s system for using the pelvis to bear the load using a SHAPED belt is still superior (and some PNW agencies [the first to move gear off the belt] are doing just this).

    • Guest

      How the hell is a vest for carrying stuff “militarization”?

    • KLP

      Just wait til you see how militarized our nation’s fishermen and their vests are. It’ll blow your mind.

    • eRIC

      When your primary weapon is a rifle, fine.

      But when your primary weapon is a pistol on your side, and your vest is out like that…

      it’s gonna get snagged !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


      • Casey

        Provided you keep the weapon-side of the vest slick, an external vest doesn’t hinder access to a sidearm. I’ve worn an external armor carrier every day at work for the past five years, and it’s never gotten in the way of my draw stroke over the course of hundreds of hours of training and thousands of rounds fired. Disclaimer: I use a Safariland 6360, and I did add a pair of t-spacers between the holster and UBL to kick the holster out an additional 1/2″ from my hip to help clear the vest. The same can be accomplished with a low-ride UBL or even a drop-leg holster if one is stuck with an oversized vest.

    • balais

      Not really. Police in european nations have commonly used vests like this for some time now. Better for load distribution and comfort.

    • KipMP

      “militarizing” it’s the new in vogue scary word from the left.

      Kind of like “assault rifle”…

    • Daivd Spicer

      How does an external vest equate to militarizing the police. Society is dictating that we carry more and more crap on our persons. This sounds like a typical liberal squawk. We should not fear what tools an agency has but the way those tools get used. As a cop I will be one of the first to say that I DO NOT WANT TO LIVE IN S POLICE STATE. However if an agency is able to get close to an active shooter and save a downed member of the public or a downed officer because of an armored vehicle this is a pulse in my book. Until you have had to wear a gun belt with stuff on the back side for years you have no grounds to criticize.
      However the Buckeye State Sheriff’s association, who governs what we have to wear will never go for it until they realize it is no longer the 60’s.

      David Spicer
      Oath Keeper

  • USMC2PD0351

    You don’t need that much stuff on you.

    Pistol (plus 2 magazines)

    Radio (no need really for head or shoulder attachments)

    TASER (no need for OC spray, will only get in your eye)

    2 sets of handcuffs

    That’s all you need on your Sam Browne. (small folding knife & flashlight in pockets).

    Baton, big flashlight, UPR active shooter bag can be kept in the car.

    So you have more than enough space for that body cam–which hopefully will get lighter and smaller.

    This may take away from the Prestige, but your most important consideration is ACTUALLY where to stuff all that paperwork and forms, so you won’t have to run back and forth to the car.

    • Gene

      Different departments have different requirements. Plus, some of us have more than 3 days on the job, and, wearing a duty belt wreaks havoc on your lower back. Google “Sam Browne Syndrome”. After 24 years of working, when my agency authorized these, I jumped on it. I didn’t go tac-tarded, either. I carry the minimum that I possibly can.

      • USMC2PD0351

        So does in and out of the car, screws up the knees. Weight is weight no matter where it’s put, Either you’re fit enough to be out in the streets, or work inside.

        If you’re already carrying the minimum, as listed above, then whether you have it around your waist or on a vest shouldn’t matter that much–difference should be nil.

        Let’s be frank. People don’t go ga-ga for these vests, to go less–they do it to add more stuff. Am I right? or am I right, Gene? I’ve gotten all tacked-out, I know the feeling–but in police work, it’s just not necessary.

        • Mike

          You clearly are not a cop. Weight evenly distributed is much more comfortable when your wearing for 12 hours. Try putting 20-25 pounds of gear on a belt and wearing it for 12 hours. And then over the course of a career after that. The vest will distribute the weight.

  • straps

    With all due respect, that’s some Mayberry policing.

    I hear of agencies that allow officers to keep their batons out of arm’s reach. Then they get sued out of an OIS by an attorney who persuades a jury or commission that the baton was the difference between a lethal and non-lethal resolution. But it was in the Center Console. Then guess what. Then batons go back to the belts.

    I’d give up my Taser before I’d give up OC. The hoodrats out here dress in layers that pretty much defeat the barbs. But even that small percentage of people whose respiratory membranes don’t burn can’t hit what they cant see. Me? I’m cool with guns and clubs–my first agency was SLOOOW to evolve and that was all I had for a looong time.

    Earpieces seem like some kind of Lady Gaga bull until dispatch confirms you’re dealing with a heavy hitter who learned 10-codes and procedures in The System and REALLY wants to know how far away your beat partner is, or even a successful civil engineer who’s gonna get stupid when you find out he’s in violation of a stay-away order (this was my my worst fight ever–he wrestled in college). In my AO, every FI attracts 20 people screaming the slogan of the week about police abuse of authority. Handset speakers are no longer viable.

    I’m with you on miniaturization. Cams are already getting smaller. Radios are following–FINALLY. What I’d like to see is less-lethal consolidated into a single instrument. Impact, Taser and chemical in one device. I know, crazy.

    You presume cops work from cars and do reports on paper. The PD in the city I live in has a mandate to have the day shift out of the car for as much of the day as call volume allows. Our crime mapping web site shows how they’re doing on that. Graveyard pairs up and WALKS hot spots. Paper reports went away region-wide a decade ago..

    Fine, let’s go back to belts. SHAPED belts that PROTECT the lumbar spine instead of compromising it.

    • USMC2PD0351


      Most cops would fair better mastering the front kick than employing the baton or ASP. Unless you know how to use it, best to leave it for crowd control stuff or picking dirty items up. I hear ya on the Use of Force issue, lethal vs. non-lethal–but seriously, would a baton have made a difference in the Mike Brown shooting?

      As for TASER, I hear ya, on winter clothing. And if it doesn’t work, hands on. With OC though, when it gets on you, harder to go hands on. Unless you shoot yourself, TASER won’t negatively affect you, OC will. That’s a key difference. The ability to go hand on, if said option fails.

      As for earpieces, whether the susp hears it on air or not, he’ll fight. Better to have all ears open for 100% awareness. All other radio attachments will just either fall or be extra items to hit your head. Less is more.

      For forms and paperwork, what do you do bring a laptop with you (a house up a hill, apt. on the 15th floor)? Don’t you issue copies of preliminary and accident reports right then and there?

      Less is more. Paper beats keyboard.

      • straps

        If I’m walking up 15 floors, someone’s walking back down in bracelets.

        Tablets for everything but FI and bad stuff where tech gets in the way. I find myself clearing scenes faster, with more complete information, and less need to re-visit.

        Scene diagrams on Google Earth Pro imagery. Those diagrams have done surprisingly well when married up with the LIDAR that comes out for the 1 in 10 bad deals, so I have faith in them.

        I was there for the end of 1/4″ graph paper and “press hard 3 copies,” suffered through the early tools like Visio on the Windows 3.1 (Un)Toughbooks and systems that didn’t talk to each other. This new stuff is GTG. Including the vests. ;)

        • USMC2PD0351

          On 15 floors arrests, even if it’s just a burglary or DV investigation (susp gone)?

          Tablets? LIDAR? I’m just talking about giving victims their copy of the initial crime or accident report. You guys got portable printers with you too?

          I’m no Luddite, but c’mon too much tech in the field for patrol just makes no sense, keep it simple. Be light and nimble.

          As for this vest, might as well wear a helmet with it. It may not necessarily be over militarization, but it is a ‘too much gear in the field’ issue. Less is more.

          • Sara

            agree w/ light and nimble

      • mike

        USMC2PD0351 , first of all, earpieces don’t stop outside sounds from coming in. As for the benefits, kind of hard to sneak up on someone in the dark with your radio blaring for everyone to hear. Also, hearing radio traffic while cars are speeding past you at 70mph just a couple feet away while doing a car stop is a lot easier with an earpiece. Matter of fact you can easily miss that broadcast letting you know your suspect is wanted because the semi truck driving by was louder then the radio on your hip because like you said “no need really for head or shoulder attachments.” Try putting out radio traffic without a shoulder or lapel mic while fighting with someone. They weren’t invented to look cool, they make your job easier/safer.

        As for OC, just about every department out there makes it mandatory that you carry OC in uniform. They do it for liability. Going hands on almost always means someone is going to get some sort of injury. First thing they are going to ask you in the civil lawsuit is, why didn’t you just pepper spray my client? If you did they would have complied. Instead you decided to tackle them and they hit their head on the ground. Because of you my client has permanent migraine headaches and can’t work ever again. That’s why were suing the city/county and YOU personally for 10 million dollars. So good luck with the no OC and baton in the car idea. The reason departments make it mandatory you carry them is because someone has sued and won because the cop didn’t have that as an option during a use of force. Oh yeah almost forgot, “flashlight in your pocket.” You can’t be serious on that one.

        • USMC2PD0351

          Of course you don’t go sneaking around with your radio on blast. Any radio traffic whilst doing a traffic stop can be done in the car. There’s really no difference in how you react if it comes back to a warrant, or wanted, person–you should already set-up for that, and not wait for dispatch to dictate your actions. And while in a fight, you can just as well put it out w/ the radio on the hip, not that big a difference really.

          As for OC, that’s why you have the TASER on you. What you spray, you can tase. So when that lawyer asks why you didn’t OC his client, you say ‘cuz I tased him, OC spray just gets the susp hopped with adrenaline, much harder on me’–simple. As for the dept. dinging you for not having OC spray on you, ‘B.O. strap, LT!’. Yeah, they make you carry ’em for liability reasons, but you know OC doesn’t work, that baton’s only good for crowd control or picking things up. So keep it simple, carry only what’s necessary–it’s your health.

          For pocket flashlight, it works, some are at 300 lumens. Leave your big flash light in the car, for traffic accidents. Flashlight and folding knives in pocket.

          Again, less is more, simple is nimble.

  • Chasseur1814

    Vests on police have been a staple in Australia for years. The reason for the switch was not the militarization of the police, but rather to reduce worker comp claims due to lower back injuries from police officers carrying too much weight on their police belts around their waist. My understanding is that the vests have been very beneficial in keeping officers on the job and out of physical rehab and are worth their increased costs to the departments.

    • bart ninja

      agenda 21 is in full swing in australia… guns are already gone. They just need to pack the people like sardines in big cities to be wharehoused like cattle with no rights and very little in the way of services. Militarized police keeps the system rolling and the elites safe.

  • tirod

    There’s over 25 million prior service in America. Many served with pistol belts and the old suspenders, many wore the vests. It IS more versatile, spreads the load out, and organizes it better.

    It’s far easier to sit in a HMMV with hydration pack and vest on than with the old system and two canteens. Officers drive a lot of cruiser miles, and that belt isn’t loaded out for comfort.

    As for militarization – it’s been going on for centuries. While we may not like our police adopting too much of it, it doesn’t keep US from adopting it, and to be on record, I’m looking for a LBV in blaze orange to kit out for deer season. Maybe I can get the backpack pared down to nothing after all these years. i’d like a hydration drink tube AND a hot coffee tube from the thermos sharing space In the back. I onlyl need one extra 10 round mag pouch, but I could sure use better access to a lot of other devices – GPS, compass, light, cell phone with camera, etc.

    I don’t want it arranged the way some traditional duck hunter stows his gear, I want it MOLLE so I can have it my way.

    Think about it.

    • eRIC

      How about a flip up table from the MOLLE vest to have your donuts and coffee? You can have it all!

  • Jim

    With a taser you can only deal with one suspect at a time. pepper spray will get a crowd off of you or your partner while he s rolling on the ground trying to make an arrest.
    I’ve gassed literally hundreds of people and have had only two failures with pepper spray.
    One example, during mardi gras I rolled around the corner in our downtown area where the college bars are, and there were aprox.15+ people fighting in the middle of the street. I screamed for back up and by the time the calvary arrived I had them all proned out and gagging. Try doing that with a taser.

    • USMC2PD0351

      But they’re not fighting you. You could’ve just as easily let the mutual combat unfold–wait for back-up it’s just rumble. Tactics-wise would you have done it again? Why? Why not?

      We’re talking about susp(s) combative towards you. No one’s arguing the efficacy of simply spraying people who aren’t fighting you, like a protest. But if one of those people you sprayed decided to scrape some of that stuff of their face and sprinkle it on your face, you’d be in rough territory.

      When you have a rumble going on the best tactics is to wait for cavalry, not OC spray. You’re comparing apples and oranges and arguing for bad tactics to boot.

  • IAC

    While my exterior shirt style vest @ work isn’t an LBV, I do appreciate the storage capability of the 2 lower pockets. Other models even have a ‘hidden’ pocket behind the front buttons.

  • eRIC

    The orange blaze will go to traffic cops and highway patrol.

    LOL! table for donuts & coffee.

  • CGB

    Isnt these vests are bulky? I’m asking this, because i saw a couple of times, that when a cop with vest chase someone he was much more slower. I think its even a bigger set back, compared to a hoodie and a sneakers.

  • stefan s.

    Easy access Doughnut pouch?

  • guest

    Vests are necessary to carry all the equipment and stuff an officer might need. It is insurance against lawsuits and liability. Sure enough if anything goes wrong and there was something you needed but did not have attached to your body, you and your department will be sued. What will be your defense? Vests can even be modified to carry tablets.

  • Jim

    usmc, when i rounded the corner i was in the middle of it. all the other units were tied up with other emergencies and i’m not going to let a bunch of thugs riot and tear apart my town. you obviously have not used pepper spray on crowds or kept a crowd off your officers while they are scuffling on the ground trying to make an arrest. wipe it off and fling it back in my face? it never happens.
    explain how you would have handled it with your good tactics as opposed to my bad.

    • USMC2PD0351

      Firstly, don’t play Rambo.

      When you use OC, same as when you were sprayed in the face in the academy, your adrenaline goes up.

      Depending on which OC mix you use, it’s either gonna be thick ( hence scrape it and flick it ) or watery ( you can still scrape and flick, prisons see this all the time, though I’ve never seen it myself–but worth noting ).

      Rumbles happen, unless you have innocent lives endangered (then you can elevate the use of force), then don’t take the risk of them turning on you–when by yourself.

      If it’s mutual group combat, I wouldn’t have done anything–ie. brawl, rumble, etc. Assess from afar.

      If it’s not just a rumble and someone’s life is endangered of serious injury and/or death, then I’ll shoot a warning shot into a safe location (not just in the air). Loud bang! should get everyone’s attention, then line everyone up. If no compliance, then shoot assailants posing deadly threat to others (or, just start with this option, but warning shot is my go-to here).

      At no time will I ever consider using OC spray, 1). it will just tick people off more, ie. adrenaline and 2). it my get on my face, rendering me useless. I have to go home, I will never take the same gamble as you– though you can argue it worked out for you.

      Again, my Monday morning QB’ing of your call is that you played Rambo. My OC spray bias stands.

  • Eric

    Canadian Border Police have been using them at least since 2009. Source, I drove through Canada in 2009 and 2013.