Last week President Obama announced changes to the 1033 program that transfers surplus military equipment to local law enforcement agencies. These new rules do not end this valuable program but rather restrict the transfer of certain technologies. Concurrently, there was a call for police to soften their image.
To be sure, law enforcement is an inherently dangerous profession. Consequently, body armor is a critical piece of equipment. According to the National Institute of Justice, over 3,000 lives have been saved by body armor since they were introduced in the 1970s. But the adoption of armor isn’t the only thing that’s been going on. The very image of many Police has transformed.
Over the past 20 years or so, LEOs have begun to wear more comfortable clothing than the standard long sleeve shirt, tie and low quarters commonly associated with policing. Who can blame them? Not many people wear a suit and tie to work anymore. Increased comfort equates to increased situational awareness and productivity. The requirement is valid and it’s as much a product of supply as it is demand. As one of my friends in LE pointed out, they are getting gear that was originally designed for the military. We may know some of the reasons behind this.
During that same period, the creation of tactical teams literally exploded and officers assigned to those organizations adopted military style clothing and equipment which is quite appropriate for the mission. Eventually, as crime in America transformed, the lines between specialized units and patrol cops began to blur and along with it, the adoption of tactical-style uniforms and equipment by patrolmen. Regardless of whether the gear is actually required by everyone, many are using it, and it is saving lives and improving the quality of life for LEOs. Some of it may be imdustry pushing the “easy” button and offering LE the same designs it created for the military but a lot of it is officers wanting to look the part.
Lately, there has been a great deal of criticism directed at the Law Enforcement profession, accusing them of “militarization”. For some, dressing in tactical clothing is used for the purpose of intimidation. Others want the latest and greatest kit, emulating what they see SWAT wear and the military use on the battlefield. Unfortunately, as good intentioned as they may be, both of these groups play right into the hands of their very vocal detractors who would prefer a return to the days of “Officer Friendly” with his tie and bus driver cap.
The answer isn’t outfitting our Police in “Adam 12″-style uniforms, but wearing camouflage or even Black versions of military uniforms isn’t sustainable either. Not in this climate. Instead, I’d like to offer an alternative.
I am challenging the tactical industry to create new clothing and equipment for Law Enforcement. I recommend new styles of armor and uniforms that integrate even more effective life protecting features. In fact, as they are purpose built for policing, they could be even better than what they have available today. Much of this will be camouflage, but not the kind you’re thinking of. It’s about making features blend in. The trick is to identify LE in a positive way, yet instill a feeling of trust in the public; to soften the edges of a hard target. Some of the answers may well lie in the adoption of new color schemes. Others may be in how armor and belt mounted gear are integrated. Particularly, new camera technologies as well as GPS and communications. Additionally, there may well be ways to protect the head without looking like a military helmet.
In the same breath, I call upon the Department of Justice to offer research grants for industry to incentivize them to create these new items. I’d also like to see grants to local agencies who wish to adopt new equipment. It’s time for industry to introduce soft power alternatives for equipping law enforcement officers but they must provide the same or better comfort and protection for our police. Functionality is key, but there’s nothing wrong with looking good while you’re doing your job.