AMES, Iowa — Police officers’ duty belts have not been updated in a century. Iowa State University students want to change that, and more.
A senior industrial design class collaborated with the ISU Police Department last year to examine the issues officers face with their uniforms, gear and vehicles – and what designers can do to help solve those problems.
College students and police officers don’t typically work together in this way, says Daniel Neubauer, assistant teaching professor of industrial design. It’s an innovative project that could pave the way for future studies and partnerships at Iowa State and beyond.
“A big topic today is the idea of design for social change, and while the direct products of this collaboration may not actually contribute to social change, the act of the students collaborating with their users – in this case the police officers – is truly enacting social change,” Neubauer said. “The students leave the class with a different perspective of law enforcement and law enforcement in turn can have a different perspective of the student they are charged to protect and serve.”
The 2019 project was presented last week at the Architecture, Media, Politics and Society Parade Conference at Florida State University.
This semester, Neubauer’s goal is for juniors to continue the project, giving them an opportunity to develop prototypes their senior year.
“We laughed at the fact that it took this long to do a project together because we’re in the same building,” Neubauer said of the Armory, which houses both industrial design studios and the police department.
A learning opportunity for both design students and police
To start, students had to understand the uniform and equipment a police officer wears and works with every day.
For example, a duty belt can weigh 17 to 20 pounds. Anthony Greiter, police officer and community outreach specialist for the ISU Police Department, says he leaves every football game with bruises on his hips from the duty belt. It’s also cumbersome when it comes to using the restroom, particularly for female officers.
“Some officers don’t drink water before their shift begins because the duty belt is such a hassle,” Greiter said.
Students experienced the police gear firsthand to better inform their designs. Once they put on the gear, the students completed an abbreviated version of police training: running up stairs, performing CPR, applying a tourniquet, kicking down doors, dragging a 150-pound test dummy, handcuffing the dummy and identifying suspects. In turn, the students gave back to the officers by playing different roles for active shooter training.
But it isn’t only the duty belt that gives officers headaches.
“We wear polyester uniforms, which don’t breathe well and get hot throughout a shift,” Greiter said. “The trunks of squad cars were designed poorly with everything we have to fit in there. Our body cameras are held on by a magnet, so if I’m chasing a suspect or it gets hit, the camera will go flying.”
During the course, the students designed a wide range of police gear, including:
- Load-bearing vest: Designed to take weight off an officer’s duty belt while giving a non-militaristic aesthetic
- Tactical search gloves: Ideal for searching and pat-downs, as well as having puncture resistance and dexterity
- Duty pants: Allows police officers to keep their duty belt on while using the restroom
- Radio microphone body camera: A body camera and radio mic connected through a power cord that can be attached to mounts on the uniform’s chest
“Having that ease of access to the user was invaluable,” Neubauer said. “It’s rare to have that kind of access during the course of a project.”
Law enforcement is a prime market for product development, Neubauer says, allowing designers to tackle designs that have not changed in years, despite ever-changing demands of an officer’s job.
The students and officers developed a trusting relationship over the course of the semester. Officers visited the studio to give feedback on designs. Students working overnight would sometimes walk down the hallway to check out an officer’s uniform or squad car.
“Not only did we get some really amazing designs that could impact law enforcement nationwide and worldwide, we built relationships that extend beyond the classroom setting,” Greiter said. “Students got to see a different side of law enforcement and they got to break out of their comfort zones in design and their typical users.”