By Scott Harris, Freelance Writer
|Note: Police Chief magazine, from time-to-time, offers feature-length articles on products and services that are useful to law enforcement administrators. This article features clothing and accessories for officers.|
erving as a police officer is hard work on many levels. No one needs to be reminded of the risks officers face, be it during a routine arrest or a major shooting event like those increasing in frequency across the United States and making headlines around the world.
However, the average officer is challenged by more than just criminals and situations that crop up on his or her watch. The basic functions of the job itself, and the hardware it demands, can exact its own toll. Police spend hour after hour on their feet, in the elements, and on the run—and it all happens with a duty belt weighing 15 pounds or more.
Clothing and accessories operate at the nexus of these challenges, between a need to maximize officer safety and a desire to make the job more comfortable and efficient.
Perhaps the clearest example of this overlap is body armor. Though a critically important element of officer protection, the average piece of body armor can also make for a cumbersome accessory.
“It’s the single most uncomfortable item officers have to wear,” said Stephen Blauer, owner and head of research and development at Blauer Manufacturing, a Boston-based producer of tactical products including body armor and clothing for law enforcement and public safety professionals.
The marked increase in public gun violence in recent years has led the federal government to strengthen requirements for agencies seeking federal dollars to help pay for body armor purchases. Specifically, jurisdictions applying for matching funds through the Justice Assistance Grant Program or the Bulletproof Vest Partnership, respectively administered by the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance and Office of Justice Programs must now certify that they have a “mandatory wear” policy in place that requires officers to wear body armor if their agencies intend to use federal matching funds to purchase body armor.
That is not only potentially cumbersome, but can present a strategic disadvantage.
“If there’s a gun battle, you hope the perp shoots for the torso, because that’s the area the body armor protects,” Blauer said. “But if the perp can see that the officer is wearing armor, they are more likely to shoot for the head or groin.”
With these factors in mind, Blauer developed ArmorSkin, which both conceals body armor from view and improves officer comfort. “It allows officers to wear armor on the outside of their shirts,” Blauer explained. “ArmorSkin covers the hidden body armor with an external layer of shirting fabric that looks like a regular shirt. It helps maintain your tactical advantage, and if it’s 100 degrees outside, you can just pop it off.”
New threats undoubtedly call for new responses. A new brand of armor, called the PatrolBat, provides a ballistic shield small enough to carry in a patrol car and large enough to protect any officer who may need to respond to an armed individual, including, in extreme cases, an active shooter.
“It gives the officer a dominating presence in a gun battle,” said Rick Armellino, CEO of Baker Ballistics, the Pennsylvania manufacturer that makes the PatrolBat, along with similar products. “There is no area left vulnerable; it protects the groin and all major arteries simultaneously. Traditional shields are defensive; our shield is offensive. It’s the only shield that works with a patrol rifle.”
Baker Ballistics created the PatrolBat, in part, as a response to a new shift in law enforcement tactics brought on by the national increase in shootings. “Officers are expected to get into a situation quicker now, whether it’s a school, a mall, or a workplace,” Armellino said. “The old model of establishing a team and establishing a perimeter doesn’t work, because the shooter is shooting more people. The officer has to go in at the sound of gunfire, and that means putting yourself in a more dangerous situation.”
Armellino said that in the wake of shootings like the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, Baker has experienced a “dramatic” increase in PatrolBat orders, particularly from law enforcement agencies whose officers would face extended wait times for backup to arrive in an active shooter or similar situation. Armellino said the Vancouver, British Columbia, police department recently ordered PatrolBats for each of its 85 patrol vehicles.
Other leading body armor and protective gear manufacturers include the DuPont company (the original inventor of Kevlar), the Vermont-based Damascus Protective Gear, and American Safety Vest in Rhode Island.
Making an accessory or item of clothing more user-friendly means more in law enforcement than merely increasing comfort or convenience. Better design or construction on standard-issue items can help reduce injuries and increase an officer’s ability to get the job done.
One such example is a watch. Watches can seem like an afterthought, but that’s exactly the point. A well-made watch means never having to worry about what’s on your wrist.
“Police officers don’t want to have to press any buttons or worry about any watch batteries,” said Hugo Reiner, president of ArmourLite Watches, a Florida-based company that makes heavy-duty watches for law enforcement and other uses. “Officers don’t have time to take a watch to the shop, and with everything else they have to wear, they don’t need anything else that’s blocky.”
ArmourLite’s Isobrite line provides one example. The watch face is illuminated using tritium, a special chemical that provides clear and continuous lighting for up to 20 years without the need for batteries. The watch also benefits from durable, yet unobtrusive, construction.
“It’s designed to be as strong as possible while still being light on an officer’s wrist,” Reiner said. “And there’s a special anti-reflective film in the glass, so that during an operation it doesn’t reflect.”
Footwear may be another item that doesn’t naturally elicit a great deal of focus—until, that is, it causes a problem. At Blauer Manufacturing, boots contain a new lacing system that works on a reel, which allows officers to secure a better fit while getting in and out of their boots more quickly.
When developing the boot, Blauer researchers looked to the sports world for inspiration. A tough heel in the vein of those used by NASCAR drivers increases durability, while a tennis shoe sole provides ideal support for officers because tennis player movements (lateral, forward and back quickly) closely mimic those of an officer.
“A majority of injuries are from the knee down, because of pursuing and wrestling with that huge load on your waist,” Blauer said.
A better glove can also make an officer’s daily life much easier. Lynette Warneke Gray, a former policeman’s wife and president of the Oregon-based Glo Concepts, said her company’s GloGlovs are “the most visible on the market.” The red, reflective “stop sign” sewn into the glove’s palm makes the glove multifunctional and eliminates the need for additional equipment when directing traffic.
“If an officer is re-routing traffic with a wand, his arm is killing him after 45 minutes,” Warneke Gray said. “This glove can help with that. It’s visible from up to a quarter of a mile away, day or night.”
Other clothing manufacturers offering special products for law enforcement include Somes Uniforms based in New Jersey, the Ohio-based Rocky Brands Inc., the Pro Wear Gear firm in Canada, and Red the Uniform Tailor in New Jersey. ♦