Back when the COVID-19 pandemic first struck, there was the now-infamous run on toilet paper, with Americans scrambling to secure massive stockpiles of the essential product that helps keep the world a better, cleaner place.
Police quartermasters were among the millions of people scrambling to keep the company commode amply furnished with Charmin, perhaps reciting to themselves the old joke about the toilets stolen from the police station leaving cops with "nothing to go on."
But now—two years into this madness and with a handful of complicated vectors factoring into the worsening supply-chain mess—police departments across the country are vexed by shortages of myriad needed supplies form ammunition to apparel, computers to cameras to cars.
No "Bag of Chips"
It's not only the current crisis of goods trapped in shipping containers on ships anchored in waters outside America's largest ports, but manufacturing delays in general that are impacting law enforcement agencies. This is especially true in the shortage of microchips, which has caused production lines for a vast universe of goods to slow to a crawl in some cases and grind to a halt in others.
Beau Duffy—spokesman for the New York State Patrol—says, "The microchip shortage has impacted the agency the most. Body-worn camera procurement—we are in the midst of rolling out BWCs—and our ability to get our new vehicle deliveries are areas where we have seen it the most. Vehicles are in a backorder status, which is causing an increase in vehicle maintenance costs and mileage increases."
Duffy forecasts that there may also soon be delays with acquiring communications equipment, a product category which is heavily reliant on the availability of high-end microchips.
Brian Kelly—Facilities and Equipment Lieutenant of the Aurora (CO) Police Department—says that a significant issue is the shortage of vehicles.
"New vehicles are difficult to procure based on manufacturing issues that we are seeing across the country," Kelly says. "Everything else has been fairly simple to obtain, although it just might take slightly longer to arrive.
Unfortunately, there's little Kelly—or pretty much anyone else in his position—can do about the difficulty in obtaining new vehicles other than wait it out.
"We are at the mercy of the automotive manufacturing and not something the police department has much control over," Kelly says.
From Boots to BDUs
The most obvious—and most unfortunate—outcomes of this sudden supply chain crisis in the marketplace for public safety uniforms are cost and availability. Unlike in consumer fashion, where a person may simply choose to not jump onto the latest trend because they're temporality priced out—opting instead to see what the local thrift store has to offer—people who don the uniform have substantially less flexibility.
Rick Levine—Executive Director of the North American Association of Uniform Manufacturers and Distributors (NAUMD)—says, "There's no manufacturer at the moment that relies on either piece goods or finished garments coming in over the water that isn't facing logistics problems. It is just pervasive."
Levine laments, "A law enforcement professional has to have the items to wear that they're required to wear."
Levine says, "It's a little bit like we got caught with our pants down to some extent—excuse the pun—because for so long, we were spoiled. We could move goods around the planet basically for free. Moving product over the water was reliable and the costs were manageable. You go from a container being $1,500 or $2,500 to move, and now it's $25,000 to move. You've got dating issues where it might be for floating for twice as long as it did in the past, and so all of those costs are getting passed on because of the delays."
LaVerne Smith—Manager of the Dallas Police Department Quartermaster Unit—says, "We ran into issues getting core sizes in our uniforms with a previous vendor during 2020, when we were deep into the pandemic. Massive shut down of global operations definitely affected labor, materials, and delivery of items, as our vendor's sources were from out of the country."
Duffy says the New York State Patrol has taken steps to ameliorate the apparel issue and work around uniform shortages and delays in acquiring various items, with winter jackets being the latest items to be delayed.
"Each uniformed member is provided with extra uniforms when they come on, so we have been able to handle the delays," Duffy says. "We are ordering earlier, adapting and moving assets around and across the state to cover any shortages."
Levine points out that when the COVID-19 pandemic began, some agency standards for uniforms were loosened, where a polo shirt may be accepted when heretofore a button-down was required, for example, but even that latitude has its limits.
"We are exploring variations to our uniform equipment," says Duffy of the New York State Patrol.
Made in USA
Some agencies are now benefiting from what may previously have been viewed as something of a limitation. Levine points out that certain law enforcement entities have been operating under the guidelines of the Berry Amendment, which is primarily intended to prevent the United States military from relying on goods made in and/or supplied by foreign national entities.
Smith says that whenever possible, the Dallas Police Department has tried to rely on uniform garments made in the United States.
"We try to use manufacturers and vendors within our country," Smith says, "Especially having experienced delays with customs, distance, restrictions, shortage of labor, increase in costs, and other matters that are globally affecting shipments since the pandemic."
Some agencies not already operating under the Berry Amendment are eyeballing the option with a renewed interest.
Duffy says that due to shortages and delays, the New York State Patrol is "exploring all options, including additional US-sourced goods where available."
In order to more tightly internal control costs in manufacturing and more nimbly respond to shifting external needs and necessities in the marketplace, most industries have shifted to a "just in time" supply chain management.
"This means we didn't have always a million yards of textiles sitting at our factories," Levine explains. "We were reliant on the mills to be able to deliver the fabrics when we needed them for our production facilities to be able to cut and trim and make the goods."
Now, with a scarcity of everything from fibers to finished fabric, the whole process has been adversely affected.
A Global Issue
We're not the only one with port issues—the global supply chain crisis is just that: global.
Nor is the matter of shortages particularly new. Ammunition acquisition lead times have substantially increased year over year for decades, so most manufacturers ammo saw this current crisis coming and have tried to stay at least somewhat ahead of the worsening curve.
With new automobiles in short supply, law enforcement agencies have been creative in extending the service life of vehicles already in the motor pool.
One way or another, American law enforcement finds a way to prevail. Enduring the supply chain crisis will be no different.