Photo: The Tulsa Police Department was named the “Best Dressed” Department for appearance and functionality by the National Association of Uniform Manufacturers and Distributors.
Millions of dollars have been spent over the years to continually improve athletic clothing, shoes and gear to maximize overall athlete performance and safety. In the process, many athletes now wear clothing and protective gear that are very different than their predecessors did just a few decades prior. Uniform materials wick away moisture and provide compression support to muscles. Helmets and padding are lighter, but protect against impacts more effectively. Shoes provide better traction and support. Despite changes like these, I’ve yet to see a professional or collegiate coach refuse to allow players to wear newly designed uniforms and protective gear based on “tradition.” Such isn’t the case in law enforcement where too many agencies place a higher value on traditional uniform appearances than on uniforms that increase officer safety, performance and comfort.
I’ve spent more than 18 years in law enforcement uniforms, so before the traditionalists out there accuse me of blasphemy, let me be clear: I firmly believe that an officer’s appearance makes a critical first impression on citizens and experienced criminals alike. Your uniform, regardless of style or work assignment, needs to be well maintained and should be sized and worn correctly.
I’ve had the pleasure of meeting officers from all around the country who wear a wide variety of uniform styles. Most have a professional appearance, but too many do not. Some of them are unshaven, have food stains on their clothing or too many shirt buttons unbuttoned, or their shirts and pants look like they had been balled up in a corner with a cat sleeping on them. And a sharp-looking uniform, regardless of style, doesn’t look very professional when the officer wearing it needs to lose 75 lbs. Any gains that you make in public perception with your uniform style are lost if you neglect your physical fitness.
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It’s no secret among the public or criminals that uniformed police officers generally wear body armor, which means that there’s no tactical advantage to concealed body armor. Gunfire typically accounts for roughly one-third of all line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) annually. Body armor is a proven life-saving tool, but too many officers still refuse to wear it because “it’s uncomfortable” or “too hot.” The adoption of external carriers improves cooling and comfort, increasing safety if it encourages more officers to wear their armor.
Many officers suffer from chronic low back problems brought about in part by the way we improperly carry the weight of a duty belt around our hips. Gone are the days when an officer simply carried a badge, revolver and a set of handcuffs. Today’s officers are carrying more gear than our predecessors could have imagined, and it seems to increase every couple years. Officer-mounted video systems are the newest addition to an officer’s load, which already includes a pistol, at least two spare magazines, two sets of handcuffs, OC spray, expandable baton, Taser, high-intensity flashlight, nitrile gloves, tourniquet, knife, backup gun and body armor. How much money could you save in chiropractor bills with a more effective load-bearing system?
Think of your body armor and duty gear as one integrated system, designed to make your job safer and easier. External body armor carriers should include load-carrying capabilities. Moving some gear from your duty belt to the vest allows the weight to be carried more effectively and with less discomfort. It also allows officers to keep gear away from their lower back where it could injure them if they were to fall backward, and it permits them to properly use the lumbar support in their patrol car seats.
Ditching the leather or faux leather duty gear in favor of newly introduced padded “battle belts” or other ballistic nylon belts and pouches would reduce weight and improve flexibility and comfort. At the very least, consider the use of load-bearing suspenders to improve weight distribution from your duty belt. Various models are available that can be worn over or under your uniform shirt.
Some agencies hesitate to allow the use of suspenders or external body armor because they look too militaristic. That argument ignores the simple fact that law enforcement officers generally carry their gear and weight for much longer and more frequent periods of time than their military counterparts. The fact that officers spend much of their time seated in a patrol car actually makes the problem worse. The military understands the importance of effective load-bearing equipment, and current systems integrate the load-bearing capability with body armor. Such a change in law enforcement external body armor and load-bearing equipment would greatly improve officer comfort and lessen officer fatigue, allowing them to work longer and harder. Agencies and insurance companies would pay less in medical bills and see fewer careers end in disability retirements if they properly equipped officers from the beginning.
(For more information on external carriers, turn to pg. 40 for Gailynne Ferguson’s “External Carriers.”)
Class A & B Shirts & Pants
Materials used in the production of uniform shirts and pants continue to evolve and improve. The uniform options regarding colors, fit and fabric have never been greater. Many manufacturers have recently developed new materials and shirt styles that specifically address the issue of heat retention and moisture wicking when combined with the use of external body armor carriers.
Uniform styles tend to fall into one of two categories: a traditional Class A shirt and pant or a Class B style. Class A uniforms look sharp, but Class B style uniforms have many advantages for the street officer. Class B uniforms are often designed with greater comfort and durability in mind. They often feature thigh-level cargo pockets for additional gear and a slightly more relaxed fit, allowing for easier movement. This relaxed design also improves comfort for officers who have to wear layers of thermal underwear during winter months. Some agencies allow polo shirts to be worn in place of a traditional uniform shirt in Class B.
High visibility can be good or bad for a uniformed officer, depending on the situation. High-visibility vests and other garments are recommended (and in many cases, required by law) anytime officers are conducting traffic control or other operations that require extended presence on a roadway.
However, they aren’t usually required or used during traffic stops or other enforcement contacts. The number of officers killed and injured by passing traffic suggests that visibility enhancements should also be considered in basic uniform designs. The simple addition of bold reflective POLICE or SHERIFF lettering on the back of an officer’s shirt, coat or external body armor allows an officer to be more visible to traffic or other officers approaching from the rear. Future uniform designs might incorporate additional reflective strips that could be easily removed or concealed if an officer felt the need to be more covert.
The importance of quality footwear is often overlooked as an officer safety issue. I still occasionally see some agencies that insist their officers wear a smooth-soled cowboy-style boot or dress shoes. Such footwear doesn’t give an officer sufficient traction on wet grass, inclines, slippery floors, ice, snow or mud. They also don’t provide any ankle support and very little in the way of comfort. Look for a quality duty boot that laces up tightly and is 6–9 inches high. This support will help prevent twisted ankles or at least lessen the seriousness of any ankle injury.
Today’s boots are lighter than previous generations’ and often incorporate design features that more closely resemble athletic shoes than old combat boots, thereby allowing officers to run faster and more comfortably in them. An officer may be on their feet for hours, guarding a crime scene, walking foot patrol or directing traffic, so comfort and proper support are critical. Comfortable and sturdy duty boots aren’t cheap, but they’re well worth the money. Properly maintained, they should last at least one year and possibly longer if you rotate to different boots for winter or rain.
Safety Before Tradition
Tradition can be a wonderful thing until it compromises our ability to adapt with changing times, tactics and gear. There’s no one-size-fits all solution. Every agency needs to assess its officers’ work environments, duties and gear. Gear that’s lighter in weight and carries more efficiently prevents unnecessary injuries, resulting from long-term use. An officer’s ability to run and fight while wearing a full complement of duty gear is also improved. Updated uniform styles and materials provide better protection from the elements, keep officers cooler in warm weather and adapt easier for officers who have to wear layers in cold weather.
The argument that new uniform styles look too militaristic just doesn’t make sense. For many years, most U.S. law enforcement officers didn’t even wear uniforms while their military brethren did. Yet for some reason, those who claim that new styles look too militaristic don’t complain about officers, working under paramilitary structures or wearing insignia of rank and recognition ribbons similar to those worn by the military. Any law enforcement uniform could be deemed similar to military uniforms in some manner. Fortunately, more agencies are following the military’s example and adapting uniforms to changing needs and technologies.
The small minority of citizens who might actually claim to be offended by your new uniform style or external body armor is probably the group that regularly looks for things to be offended about. They’ll likely be offended by your very presence, regardless of uniform style. So you might as well put officer safety and comfort first.
Fortunately, the vast majority of the public will accept the fact that gear changes with new technology. If in doubt, explain your reasoning for changing uniform styles. It isn’t done to make street officers look like SWAT or the military, it’s simply adapting to new technology in order to keep officers healthy, safe and effective. Excuses like “tradition” or “we’ve always done it this way” don’t justify failing to adapt uniforms and gear for the current realities of law enforcement. Ultimately, the first impression you make on your citizens isn’t limited to your uniform. It’s a total package that depends heavily on your attitude, skills and physical appearance, in addition to the condition of your uniform, regardless of style.