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Feds Look to Measure 1,000 Cops for Science

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© (Seth McConnell/The Denver Post/Getty Images)   ENGLEWOOD, CO - SEPTEMBER 14: An officers bullet proof vest hangs outside of their locker at public safety services building in Englewood, Colorado on September 14, 2016. The City of Englewood is going to voters in November seeking a $27 million bond to replace its outdated and too small public safety services building which serves as HQ for the local police, and a base of operations for fire. We look at the rationale behind this decision. (Photo by Seth McConnell/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

By Alan Neuhauser, U.S. News & World Report

American police officers are on average about 25 pounds heavier than in the 1970s – and it's not their waistlines that have expanded, but their pecs, according to the preliminary results of a two-year, roughly $1 million study launched this summer by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Since July, researchers with the institute have been dropping into police departments around the country, pinching local cops with calipers and ushering them into a trailer outfitted with 3D scanners to see how thin the blue line really is.

The plan, once the measurements of some 1,000 officers are collected, is to make the data available for equipment manufacturers to improve everything from the seats in cramped cruisers to the size and fit of body armor to even the cut of officers' uniforms. With nearly half the injuries that officers experience each year coming from violent attacks and car crashes, the hope is that such improvements will better keep cops from getting hurt on the job.

"The purpose of the study is to establish a current reference database of the body size and shape of police in the United States," says Dr. Hongwei Hsiao, the study's lead researcher and chief of the federal institute's protective technology branch. "The current data is too old, so manufacturers and even police officers don't have any guidelines on how to choose the right size of protective gear. Our study will fill in those gaps."

The last such effort – performed solely by caliper – was initiated in 1968 at the behest of Congress. At the time, police departments and equipment-makers were, at best, relying on measurements of troops collected by the U.S. military. But just as often they were simply turning to the average heights and builds of the general U.S. population.

After measuring nearly 3,000 officers around the country and collecting surveys from another 10,000, the Naval Electronics Laboratory Center and Aerospace Medical Research Laboratory, which were put to the task because of their experience measuring service members, found that police officers were consistently larger than either the average soldier or civilian.

The results were in part by design: The police force of the Nixon era looked far different than the roughly 900,000 officers and deputies who are on the job today. Police precincts and state trooper barracks at the time were almost exclusively the domain of white men. A number of agencies even had standards requiring officers to stand nearly 6 feet tall or higher. (The New York Times, describing the city police department's decision in 1973 to throw out its height requirements, declared that "men no taller than jockeys could be patrolling the city's streets.")

By comparison, about 13 percent of local police officers in 2013 were women, according to the most recent survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. More than a quarter identified as African-American, Latino or another non-white group.

"You see these old pictures of state troopers and you're like, 'Great googamooga, these guys are giants!'" says Capt. Dan Sheffield, speaking in his role as a member of the Fraternal Order of Police's Safety and Technology Development Committee. Sheffield helped wrangle officers for the study at the Prince George's County Police Department in Maryland. "I graduated out of the academy with people who were 4-foot-11."

In the current study, officers are first measured with calipers to provide a direct comparison to the data collected some 40 years earlier. Then they're brought into a trailer, where they don skin-tight garments known as "scanware" and proceed to sit and stand in various positions while cameras and computers generate measurements in 3D.

"You're in a barber-type chair and they do a head scan, and all the sudden you see a 3D image of your head on that screen," says Lt. Eric Nichols, of the Taunton, Massachusetts police department, who helped recruit officers for the study. "We're used to seeing photographs of ourselves. To see a 3D version was almost Halloween-like. But once you went through the study, it really hit home of how important this could be to the long-term safety of officers."

The results suggest officers have long since traded doughnuts for dumbbells – or, perhaps, crullers for Crossfit. Despite the relative diversity of law enforcement compared to 40 years ago, officers' upper bodies are typically thicker than the general population.

"Their body weight isn't just in the belly, it's the chest," Hsiao says.

The police study comes on the heels of similar efforts by the federal agency to measure firefighters, emergency medical workers, construction workers, truckers and other laborers across a host of professions with particularly high rates of on-the-job injuries – and, perhaps counterintuitively, large numbers of workers who don't wear required safety equipment.

Firefighters, for example, often called to car crashes, regularly see firsthand the impact of not wearing a seat belt. As recently as 2015, firetrucks themselves were involved in nearly 17,000 collisions that injured more than 1,100 firefighters, according to data collected by the National Fire Protection Association.

Yet more than 25 percent of firefighters acknowledged that they don't wear seat belts in fire trucks – a number, due to underreporting, that was almost certainly lower than the actual total.

Exasperated, fire chiefs and the National Fire Protection Association turned to the federal government for help: Was it, they wanted to know, an issue of mentality – firefighter bravado – or something else?

"This seemed to be a very simple, straightforward question, but nobody could answer it and there was no data," Hsiao says. "Our national study showed that about 25 percent of firefighters couldn't buckle up themselves based on their body size and shape and based on the size of the seat belts in fire engines. The number matched perfectly."

Even purpose-built vehicles, it turned out, weren't designed for the people using them – in this case, firefighters who tended to be about 28 pounds heavier than the general population, according to the study's results.

Since the analysis was published, firetruck manufacturers have added an extra 8 inches to seat belts, Hsiao says. The New York City fire department, among other agencies, is going through a retrofit of its existing vehicles to lengthen the restraints, he says.

The issue of collisions – and the refusal to wear seat belts – is a common theme across all the industries that the team of federal researchers has studied, including its current effort looking at law enforcement. The issue in law enforcement is particularly pressing.

"An officer spends seven, eight hours a day in the cruiser, getting in and out of the cruiser constantly. And if that seat has a little bit of relief for their duty belt, everything is going to increase the safety and officers' wellness," Nichols says.

Cruisers, however, unlike fire or construction vehicles, are generally adapted from mass-market vehicles – Dodge Chargers, Ford Crown Victorias, Chevy Luminas, or what one officer called "No Room-inas" – meaning that their seats are not necessarily designed with officers and their equipment in mind. But discomfort isn't the only factor that deters from the wearing of seat belts.

"Officers a lot of times, they don't want to use their three-point restraints – 'It confines me, I can't get out of the car, I can't get my weapon if I'm ambushed,'" Sheffield says.

Car crashes, however, were the second-highest cause of law enforcement deaths in eight of the past 10 years, behind only shootings, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. Sheffield, notably, was the first officer to respond to the scene of the 2012 fatal crash of Prince George's Officer Adrian Morris, who was not wearing his seat belt when his cruiser slid off Interstate 95. Two years earlier, Prince George's Officer Thomas Jensen was killed when his cruiser slid on ice and struck the side of a bridge. He, too, was not wearing a seat belt.

"I've lost so many friends in accidents. We still lose so many officers in accidents every year," Sheffield says. "I hope Hongwei and his crew will be able to come up with measurements so that these manufacturers will be able to come up with a magnet system, something that you can get out of when you put it in park."

The motivating idea behind the effort, no matter the industry, is that no single equipment manufacturer could – or, at least, would be willing to – invest the time and money needed to collect the sort of data that the government can gather. Even if a company did pursue such an effort, it would leave all the others in the dark – the better to gain a competitive edge. And that's assuming that it had access to the scientific expertise and technology needed to make and analyze all the measurements correctly.

"With their duty belts and body armor, it's 25-30 pounds of weight," says Matthew Hause, acting team chief of the research group's "human factors team," which is collecting the measurements. "So if our research can reduce any of that weight, that would be beneficial to them. Better-fitting armor and just the necessity of what they carry – it can be far-reaching."

For women on the job, especially, the effort is widely welcomed – and overdue. There was the homemade flyer, for example – reportedly posted in an NYPD locker room and taking a dig at how bulletproof vests don't take into account the shape of the female body – that showed a female officer and declared "WANTED: For Criminal Impersonation of a Mailbox."

Uniforms remain a particular challenge: Women on the job say they often find themselves forced to choose between an ill-fitting men's uniform, which many then pay out-of-pocket to get tailored, or a uniform ostensibly designed for women but which somehow fits even worse than the men's sizes. Even gloves seem to be sized for men's hands.

"The pants don't fit right, the gun belt doesn't fit right. The vests they still haven't figured out. All those things contribute to making it just a little bit harder to do your job every day," says Catherine Sanz, who leads Women in Federal Law Enforcement and who served in the Federal Protective Service and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Providing measurements to manufacturers won't alone solve the business case for manufacturers, Sanz acknowledges. With women accounting for only 100,000 of the nation's officers, there's not nearly the same incentive to design modified equipment and invest in new manufacturing to access the market as there is for men.

But, Sanz says she's hopeful.

"It'll affect the men first. But some of the equipment and items probably can be easily altered, and others not so much," she says.

The fact that scientists are even paying attention to people on the job, she adds, is significant. "That somebody actually thought about and is taking these things to heart and is trying to update this really does a service for the professions," Sanz says.

It's a sentiment that other officers shared. Nichols, at the Taunton Police Department, says he at first struggled to recruit officers to submit to be measured, a process that can take about an hour.

"It wasn't easy to get officers to participate," he says. "My first mistake was I put out an email to the department and the title was 'Anthropometric Study.'"

But, he continued, "Officers started to go through it, and it got contagious how neat it was. That someone cared enough to get this study going and apply technology and apply science for the safety of our profession. It was humbling."

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Technology - U.S. Daily News: Feds Look to Measure 1,000 Cops for Science
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