"Tactical black" is what springs to mind when thinking about SWAT teams, but it's not the only apparel option for police tactical units. Wearing camouflage patterns is something tactical units working in more rural areas have been doing for years. And with more patterns available for different environments, it's become more common for urban departments to adopt them as well. Now with the advent of the A-TACS pattern from Digital Concealment Systems, many more agencies may be making the switch.
Benefits of Camo
"Black does not work. It is not a good color for tactical operations, either urban or rural," Capt. Dave Todd says emphatically. He heads the special enforcement bureau, special operations command for the St. Charles County (Mo.) Sheriff's Department. "It's intimidating, but for operating subdued, it's not a good color. And many SWAT teams are moving away from it just for that fact."
Todd says he doesn't expect his tactical team to be invisible, but he depends on a certain degree of blending into the background to keep an advantage over suspects. He remembers when the Vietnam War was still fresh in people's minds and law enforcement agencies got flak for wearing camo because it was associated with the military, which had a bad association for some. Todd is glad that's not so much an issue now.
Another proponent of camouflage patterns for tactical teams, Sgt. Matthew Cody says his unit initially wore black SWAT uniforms because of the idea that seeing a black-clad form would have a psychological effect on suspects and distract them. But he's not sold on that theory, and agreed with his department's decision to adopt camouflage.
As the Special Emergency Team commander for the Chambersburg (Pa.) Police Department, Cody likes the fact that when his team is wearing its woodland camouflage uniforms, the officers tend to blend into the environment, especially when searching in open areas or positioned among foliage while conducting operations in cities.
"When we make entries into residences we can still put the 'POLICE' embroidery on our vests so we're recognizable as police officers," says Cody. "Camouflage gives us the ability to blend easier into our wooded environment. It also gives us advantages in the urban area during an urban operation."
Todd believes "an urban camo" is always preferable to black or any solid color in large cities, such as the black and gray pattern the neighboring St. Louis County (Mo.) PD tactical team wears. "You've got to use what works for your environment."
Technologically Advanced Design
Law enforcement experts and SWAT officers believe that even more agencies will begin to trade in their black for hyper-real digital camo patterns with the development of the A-TACS (Advanced TActical Camouflage System) system.
What sets A-TACS apart from other digital camouflage patterns available to law enforcement is the organic look of the design to further aid concealment. According to Philip Duke, Digital Concealment Systems (DCS) principal and designer of A-TACS, the keys are use of color and a pattern within a pattern.
"We basically took what the military's done with UCP (Universal Camouflage Pattern) and the digital look, and we kind of took it a step further down the road. It's still made up of pixels, but our pixels are not square. They're just little organically shaped blobs," says Duke. "An elemental color is assigned to each blob, and those blobs all together form a little pattern. But then it's designed so that when you back away from it, all those little patterns in turn make up a larger pattern. That's the 'pattern within a pattern' concept."
When viewed from a distance, the camouflage patterns of individual "blobs" on the A-TACS apparel tend to blur together into what looks like one color, nullifying the camouflage effect. Duke says that because of its nebulous design, the A-TACS pattern maintains its concealment effect at greater distances.
A major factor in this effect is those elemental colors Duke mentioned. To blend in as well as possible in as many environments as possible, DCS worked hard to come up with the ideal representative colors of concrete and steel in addition to those of natural landscapes.
"We pulled color directly from the color of sand or the color of dirt," Duke says. "It's not a PMS color we picked out of a book. We actually went out and took photos and randomized color to the point that we were able to get that common color for each item."
Because of the different colors included and the subtle variations in shape, experts say the A-TACS pattern can be used in many environments, including desert and urban landscapes.
St. Charles' County's Todd welcomes advances in technology that can provide his team with tactical advantages, especially if they can help him stretch his agency's dollar.
"Twenty to 30 years ago your only options were solid black or navy blue. As time progressed, certain vendors have come out with these different patterns, and it's more flexible," says Todd. His team wears the Universal Camouflage Pattern for use in the suburban and rural areas in their jurisdiction. "For us, it's a money saver. The one pattern serves both our purposes." But Todd says his agency isn't ready to switch to A-TACS yet.
Cody of Chambersburg PD likes the idea of a head-to-toe concealment system, which is the goal behind the A-TACS pattern appearing on a wide range of clothing and gear. He's concerned that the benefits of his team's woodland camo uniforms are counteracted by the officers' black tactical vests and helmets, and he's noticed the benefits of camouflaged firearms (see "A-TACS for Weapons").
"Some of our sniper weapons are camouflage, and we find that to be advantageous, especially if we're doing urban observations," he says. "It helps keeping down glare and reflection and it helps them blend into their environment a little easier. If you have an object that's shiny silver it will stick out."
At presstime, items featuring the A-TACS pattern included the ACU from Propper; ProTech tactical carriers and soft tactical armor accessories from Safariland; boots from Danner; packs and nylon kit from Tactical Assault Gear; gun slings from Blue Force Gear; shirts, pants, and an Eotac/Emerson knife from Eotac; and weapons and optics systems from Remington, Bushmaster, and Bushnell. Digital Concealment Systems is currently working with companies to put the A-TACS pattern on additional products for law enforcement.
Where to Find A-TACS Pattern Products