column: Baking in Kevlar: The sweltering misery of summer police beat walking
Art Fair week always reminds me of my first summer on the job as an Ann Arbor police officer. It was back in the days before the University of Michigan had its own police department and I was assigned a walking beat on Central Campus, more precisely the Diag. I remember many days over 90 degrees and several over 100.
For whatever reason, police command always wanted its beat walkers to walk from City Hall. So as a rookie, you would load up three ticket books (parking, city code and traffic violations) into your back pocket, and since the traffic book was too large to fit in your back pocket, it was kept in the small of your back tucked in your pants.
Associated Press file photo
Normally the walk out to the beat was a pleasant form of exercise and rather uneventful. On the days when the temperature soared into the upper 90s or 100, it was miserable. Veteran officers would catch a ride from another officer to their beat. Younger officers were watched more carefully or “delayed” in order to make sure they walked to their beat. I believe this was called “instilling discipline” in a young officer.
I am not by nature a whiner and have been fortunate enough to really enjoy being a police officer. On those hot days in July walking out to the beat, however, I figured this must be some sort of sadistic command “test” of a young officer’s character. Especially while wearing a “bullet-resistant” (they are not actually bulletproof) vest.
When in uniform I always wear a bullet-resistant vest. One veteran recently summed it up, “If you are going to wear a target, you have to wear a backer.”
For the uninitiated, a bullet-resistant vest is made of Kevlar — a tightly woven nylon that will hopefully trap a bullet fired accurately at the wearer. The many layers of Kevlar are wrapped in thick plastic to keep it dry and effective.
Those “ballistic panels” are kept in place on the body with a cloth cover that used to be cotton but is now Microban, which the manufacturers assures is, “antimicrobial protection which fights the effects of odor-causing mold, mildew and bacteria.”
Wearing a vest is like wearing a scuba diving wetsuit — only heavier — under your heavy cotton and polyester blend uniform shirt. An officer wears a T-shirt under the vest, and, whether the ambient temperature is warm or cold, that T-shirt is sweat-soaked at the end of the day.
The uniform worn by police officers has changed over the years. Until recently, most officers wore heavy wool pants, a uniform shirt and a black-visored hat, like most Michigan State Police troopers still wear today.
This is called a “Class A” uniform, and they look sharp on officers. Class A uniforms are now mostly worn by police administrators or at formal police functions like funerals.
Most street officers now wear “Class B” uniforms, which used to be referred to as “fatigues.” Those uniforms do not look as sharp but are much more functional and supposedly machine washable by officers; Class As are dry clean only.
The upside of the Class B uniform is that it is cheaper, allows greater mobility, has lots of pockets for equipment and is lighter and therefore cooler than the wool uniforms. The down side is that even if they are pressed and starched, they wrinkle within about 90 seconds of sitting down. They also look more militaristic, which seems offensive to some citizens, but they are definitely more comfortable for officers.
Back in the early 1980s the uniforms were all Class A. So when the temperatures hit the high 90s or 100, I was leaving the air-conditioned City Hall wearing wool pants, a heavy non-wrinkling polyester shirt and a bulletproof vest. Top that ensemble off with a navy blue — solar collecting — visored uniform hat, and I was in for a roasty, toasty walk to my beat.
The heavy sweating started around Division Street. The worst thing about wearing a vest is that your perspiration has nowhere to evaporate to because your torso is wrapped in plastic.
The sweat collects — not unlike a “solar still” used in salt-water survival situations — and finds the hollow where your spine runs down your back. Gravity pulls the pooled sweat down your back.
Yes, the Ann Arbor Police Department had a policy that mandated that officers and civilian alike must wear underwear while working at the department. This policy was imposed in the late 1960s, when a records clerk startled a deputy chief while she was scooting around on a low stool filing reports while wearing a miniskirt sans underwear.
By the time I reached the University of Michigan Security base, then located in an office under the carport at 525 Church St., I was soaked in sweat. Whatever sweat did not make the trip to my jockeys had been absorbed into my traffic ticket book’s cardboard cover. The same cover that supplied the numerical codes for the violations was now damp and rubbed into little paper balls adhering to the tail of my uniform shirt. My “Patrol Activity Log” that I had folded and placed in my hat was similarly wet.
I listened closely to veteran officers who told me: “A good beat officer is never cold, wet or hungry in the winter, or hot, wet or thirsty in the summer.” Therefore my beat walking patrol on those days consisted of walking from air-conditioned building to air-conditioned building and drinking from every water fountain I passed. I much preferred “building checks,” visiting the alligators with the oddly bubbling eyes in the Natural Science Building or the feces-throwing monkeys in the dental building to strolling the Diag turned frying pan.
For those S-L-O-W-L-Y strolling through the Art Fair where there are huge crowds, little breeze and hot pavement — dress appropriately and stay hydrated. Hold your child's hand at all times, and remember a baby in a stroller is even hotter than you are, so keep them cool and hydrated or, better yet, get a baby sitter and let them stay home.
Do not bring your dogs to the Art Fair. There is no room for them, and they wind up standing on very hot pavement more than walking. I am the proud owner of two rescued dogs, but I would never subject them to the Art Fair.
Most of all, have fun and stay cool at the Art Fair.
Lock it up, don’t leave it unattended, be aware and watch out for your neighbor.