In the past, it may have held only a holster, gun and some bullets, but today's hard-working belts must carry an average of 8 to 10 and sometimes up to 15 pounds of equipment, ranging from flashlights, keys and handcuffs to OC spray, batons and duty weapons. In short, duty belts must be strong and have a stiff enough edge to support all the poundage.
But they must also be comfortable. A belt that is too stiff or that is ill-fitting can be not only an officer safety issue but a health hazard as well, in the form of fatigue, pinched nerves, sore backs and bruises.
Over time, like most things, the duty belt has undergone changes. But one thing has stayed the same for many officers: They still call their belts "Sam Brownes."
"It's like Kleenex," said Scott Carnahan, of Armor Holdings' Safariland. "The name has become synonymous with the duty belt."
Who was Sam Browne?
As many law enforcement professionals probably know, the belt worn by so many officers is named after British General Sir Samuel Browne (1824-1901). It is described by Webster's as "a belt with a shoulder strap running diagonally across the chest, worn as part of a military or police uniform." Common legend has it that the belt was designed by Browne after his left arm was severed during battle in India. The original strap is said to have helped to stabilize the belt for the one-handed drawing of a saber and also may have helped to take weight off the hips.
That was a different time and sabers have been replaced by smaller but exponentially more lethal weapons. Nonetheless, stability is still critical and weight distribution more important than ever.
The classic Same Browne, according to many, is the 2 ¼- inch black leather belt with a rectangular adjustable nickle or brass buckle that is backed by two hooks and a tab. Throughout the first part of the 20th century, the strap, or lanyard as some call it, was retained in numerous agencies. But as social climate changed, officers started to find the time- honored strap to be a liability.
As handy as it may have been in the past, law enforcement has all but abandoned the strap for safety reasons.
Field Evidence Technician Steve Willard, of the San Diego Police Department, is also director of the San Diego Police Historical Association. He told POLICE, "We took it off of our regular uniform in 1943 after an officer jumped out of his car to chase someone, only to have the strap hook in the door. He was dragged along side the car as his partner wasn't aware he wasn't completely out."
Deputy Jonathan Anderson, of the Onondaga Co. (N.Y.) Sheriff's Department, described another type of incident that occurred in 1960, in which an officer, trying to control a strike situation, was grabbed by his strap and pulled into the angry crowd.
After removal of the strap, there wasn't much to keep gravity at bay. Willard says he has photos of officers in 1944 wearing their gun belts "John Wayne" style, with them hanging down several inches below the pants belt. "I guess keepers weren't invented yet," he said. San Diego officers retained the strap for dress uniforms until the mid- 50s. It was the only way to hold the gun belt up.
The Los Angeles Police Department followed a similar course. Retired LAPD Sgt. Det. Richard Kalk now heads the LAPD Historical Society. He said the LAPD first used the Sam Browne in the late '20s through early '30s. In 1934 or '35 it became part of the standard uniform, with the strap.
He told POLICE that the military at the time mass produced the gear, which was worn by WWI pilots, and law enforcement was able to get it at a good price. According to Kalk, who worked (with Joseph Wambaugh) as an officer from 1961 through 1991, police often adopted uniforms from the military.
From then on they used the Sam Browne with the shoulder strap until it became optional for the class of Oct. 1958. Said Kalk, "They did away with the shoulder strap because suspects were able to grab it." Keepers were put on the belt to keep it in place in lieu of the strap.
Bill Rogers, a former police officer and FBI agent, has been involved in product research, development and testing for Safariland since 1985. He said in the late '60s the Same Browne was very popular in many departments, but when grappling became common, the strap became a safety factor. "That really killed the Sam Browne for people," said Rogers.
There are reportedly some agencies whose officers still wear the Sam Browne should strap. In fact, a source from the New Jersey State Police Museum told POLICE that that agency's troopers wear it on a daily basis. "There is nothing that has happened that would make us abolish the wearing of the strap," he said, adding, "It's tradition- this is a big heritage issue for the State Police." Most agencies, however, reserve the strap for dress occasions.
Former Chicago police officer Tom Marx, now a representative for Michael's of Oregon, said that Uncle Mike's makes a strap that will break away for departments that want to look without the safety hazard. The company also makes breakaway suspenders, designed especially for police work. These appear to be most popular in the Pacific Northwest, according to Marx.
Said Marx, "It's amazing how many calls we get for suspenders. Someone will see them on TV off a COPS show or something and get interested."