Age of Specialization
This page from a uniform catalog shows U.S. police unis from the 1920s. Note the adoption of the shirt and tie under the coat.
Today's police officer is dressed very differently than the officer of the mid-1900s, and the reasons for that go far beyond the trend of less formal clothing in all walks of American life. The contemporary peace officer is often a specialist, a bomb tech, a SWAT officer, a gang officer, a K-9 officer, just to name a few. And the uniform is designed to fit the needs of that specialty.
Another trend for 21st century police agencies is the battle dress uniform. Dervis, who judges the National Association of Uniform Manufacturers and Distributors (NAUMD) best-dressed police force competition, decries the BDU's military look, particularly in green, black, or camouflage.
"The moment you dress a police officer in an army battle dress uniform, you send a different message to the public and the officer," he explains. "There is a fine line between being authoritative and being intimidating."
Dervis acknowledges, however, that more and more agencies are authorizing BDUs for certain special officers because they are comfortable and practical. But he adds that agencies should be very conscious of the message they send through color. "A police blue BDU looks much more benign than green or camouflage," he says. "Black is a really bad color for police officers [unless they need it for night operations] and near-black is just as bad."
Clothing says a lot about a police department and its attitude toward its duty and the people it serves, according to Dervis. That's why he favors blue for all peace officers. "Blue has a long and honorable tradition," he says. "I think it's a mistake to move away from it. Clothing is an instant message sender and jettisoning the traditional police colors may have long-range effects that are less than desirable."
Despite such concerns, there is one undeniable trend in police uniforms over the last 160 years: They've become more comfortable, more practical, and more functional. There are no signs that this trend is going to stop.
In contemporary policing, there are three major trends in clothing: the battle dress uniform (BDU), the functional custom uniform, and the tactical uniform.
The leading maker of BDUs for law enforcement is Propper, one of seven or eight authorized manufacturers of BDUs for the U.S. military. Jeff Mason, president of Propper, says the company is the only one of the official military contractors that makes BDUs for police, and it makes the only police BDU that, with one minor change, meets U.S. government guidelines for battle dress uniforms. Police versions are made of polyester/cotton blends and military BDUs are a nylon/cotton blend.
Propper makes BDUs in more than 20 sizes, all rigorously inspected to meet government standards for sewing. Mason says the Propper BDUs feature rugged stitching and seams, including a total of 47 28-stitch bartacks in each garment.
Each Propper police BDU is cut from military patterns so that they match government guidelines for fit. You might think that the way a soldier's uniform fits is a minor concern for the military, but Mason says government inspectors take it very seriously.
And with good reason. "Pretend that you're a soldier, and you're moving in quietly on the enemy," says Mason. "You squat down and take aim, but your saddle (crotch seam and seat seam) pinches you. You flinch, you pick up your foot, snap a twig, and the enemy hears you. You don't want the fit of your clothes to compromise what you're doing in a situation like that."
Another major change in police clothing in the last 10 years or so has been the adoption of custom uniforms for specific law enforcement applications. A leader in this field is Tacoma, Wash.-based Bratwear.
Originally a sportswear manufacturer, Bratwear entered the law enforcement market several years ago as a maker of spandex shorts for police bicycle units. The company now makes custom bicycle patrol shirts, shorts, pants, vests, jackets, pads, and accessories, as well as custom uniforms for K-9 units and tactical officers.
"My desire is not to run a factory, but to be the Calvin Klein of specialty uniforms," says Bratwear president Sally Swanson. "They call us the 'fashion police,' and I love the label. You might see cops on skateboards and Rollerblades some day, and I'm going to make the knee pads for them."
Some departments swear by Bratwear's custom approach. Stu Bracken of the Tacoma Police Department's bicycle squad was frustrated by the approach of mass-market manufacturers before he talked to Bratwear. "Everybody else said, 'This is how we make it and that's it.' Not Sally; she listens. For instance, we wanted zippers on the outside of our pants legs, not the inside, where they usually are and they get caught up in our bike chains. She did it."
For 15 years, Royal Robbins has been selling its 5.11 Tactical Pants, and they're still in great demand. Any officer who's ever worn them can tell you why. Made of tough 8.5-ounce tactical canvas, 5.11 Tactical Pants have double seats and double knees. The pants feature cargo pockets for knives and cell phones, and a heavy-duty tool strap that lets wearers hold flashlights or batons in their back pockets.
Capitalizing on the popularity of 5.11 Tactical Pants, Royal Robbins has created a complete line of 5.11 Tactical clothing for law enforcement. The line includes the 5.11 Tactical Vest, the 5.11 Tactical Longsleeve Shirt, the 5.11 Tactical Polo Shirt, the 5.11 Tactical Short, and the 5.11 Bluewater Short.
Although the 5.11 Tactical line of police clothing is not strictly uniform wear, the pants, vests, and other garments are being used by some officers as complements to their issued uniform. Wearers say the 5.11 Tactical line is comfortable, practical, and functional for patrol, SWAT, and other police operations.