Even plainclothes officers need to wear a vest and carry a variety of gear. You never know when you'll need them.
When you are in plain clothes, you face certain potential dangers that uniform officers easily avoid.
First, you can easily be misidentified. This can happen if you are working undercover or working as a detective. After all, you work in police operations without a uniform that immediately and instantly identifies you as an officer to both the public and your fellow officers.
You also don't have the luxury of a big duty belt to carry all your gear. So you have a tendency to pack light. That's a tendency that can lead to tragedy. Even if you are wearing a suit and tie on the job, you still need your tools.
The following is some advice that I can offer my plainclothes colleagues still on the job.
Gear and Equipment
Wear Your Body Armor. If you arrest or confront suspects, search buildings, stop cars, or respond to emergency calls, you need to wear body armor. Many types of armor can easily fit under a suit (Hint: you may want to buy work clothes in a slightly larger size to accommodate armor).
There are bullet resistant "investigator" style jackets, "raid" jackets, denim jackets, and photographer's utility vests. Even undercover officers in narcotics or firearms now wear armor whenever practical-and it very often is practical-given the variety of armor available today.
Drive Carefully and Watch the Traffic. An unmarked car, especially one without a roof light bar, is much less visible to other drivers than a marked car, so drive accordingly. If you have only a tiny dashboard flasher or no special lights at all, don't even think of doing pursuits or responding to emergency calls the way you would in a marked car. And please wear a seat belt.
Be careful when you get out of your car on a street or highway, especially at night, since you may be hard for drivers to see. Keep a reflective traffic vest handy in case you have to work at a checkpoint or roadblock, stop traffic at a scene, or stop on the highway shoulder to investigate or collect evidence.
You Need Your Tools. Local laws, agency regulations, and the exact nature of your assignment will affect what gear you can carry. If you work in a non-undercover assignment such as a detective, an investigator, or a plainclothes officer who is not pretending to be a bad guy and you're unlikely to be held or searched by suspects who are trying to figure out whether you are an officer, you need the following, at a minimum:
- A service handgun, not just a tiny .380 autopistol or two-inch barrel .38 revolver.
- A backup firearm.
- A spare magazine if you carry an autopistol. You may not think you need the ammo. But if your gun malfunctions, you may damage your magazine while clearing it and need another good magazine to reload.
- A department portable radio, in case you need to call for help, hear calls for help from your fellow officers, or need to coordinate your actions with other officers. If radio size is a problem, see if your department can get one of the new small portable radios. If your agency won't issue you one but will allow you to use one, consider purchasing one for yourself. Talk to your agency before you buy a radio, so that you get one that's compatible with your agency's radio system. Be sure to test your new radio before you use it, to make certain that it works.
- A cell phone, in case you're caught in a dead spot where your department radio won't work, or you have other radio problems, and need to call for help or contact other officers. Cell phones are very handy in cases where you believe suspects have police scanners or stolen police radios and can monitor your radio transmissions. Note that a cell phone, while valuable, does not replace a department radio, which lets you speak directly with a dispatcher without having to go through 911.
- Defensive tools in addition to your firearm, including OC spray, an expandable baton, or other authorized impact defensive tool. You may need to defend yourself or someone else in a situation where using a firearm isn't appropriate or legally justified. In that case, it's a lot better to have options apart from empty hand strikes or control techniques.
- Handcuffs, both for securing suspects and as a last-ditch defensive tool.
- A flashlight, even in the daytime because you may find yourself in a dark basement, on a dark stairway, or searching for evidence hidden in the dark interior areas of a vehicle. A flashlight can certainly help your shooting in low-light conditions but, more importantly, it helps you decide whether to shoot at all. A flashlight can be vital for target identification, in other words figuring out who is and isn't a deadly threat.