Stretching Your Uniform Budget

Larger departments end up with surplus uniforms occupying precious storage space. Over the years, I have made a point of getting to know and work with the people in larger departments who are responsible for supplying uniforms and equipment to their officers to make use of that excess.

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I have been called a "scrounger" and other similar names by officers and various administrators at departments where I've worked. But I don't mind being known as thrifty if it helps my fellow officers maintain a professional appearance.

Whether they realize it or not, people tend to judge the quality of a department and its personnel based on the appearance of their uniforms. It costs a lot of money to purchase pants, shirts, and outerwear for every officer, but I've found some tricks smaller agencies can use for acquiring these items without breaking the bank.

You see, for various reasons, larger departments end up with surplus uniforms occupying precious storage space. Over the years, I have made a point of getting to know and work with the people in larger departments who are responsible for supplying uniforms and equipment to their officers to make use of that excess.

When larger departments have annual uniform replacement programs, officers routinely turn in coats, jackets, and raincoats that have only seen "trunk wear," meaning they lay in the car trunk and were only worn on occasion. Officers are provided new replacements annually when turning in these "used" items. Many larger departments also have numerous uniform contracts that change from year to year. Sometimes when this occurs, the department cleans house of existing uniforms due to differences in style, dye lots, etc., between the old and new uniforms.

Retirements, promotions, and weight gain also provide a steady supply of gently used uniforms as well as leather and nylon equipment. Many departments discard these items rather than re-issue them. Believe it or not, some union contracts prohibit the reissuing of uniforms to officers even if the uniforms turned in are still in packages or have tags on them.

Uniforms that are unneeded for any of these reasons are usually available to other smaller departments and agencies. You just need to contact the department's command, request the surplus, and show a justified need for them. In my experience, larger departments are happy to pass these uniforms on to other officers. It helps them make space for other items and they can designate it as a community benefit or tax write-off.

You may not know this, but some departments in larger cities actually donate their gently used uniforms to homeless shelters and developing countries. Why? Because no one in law enforcement had the gumption to ask for them.

Surplus uniforms might be free, but procuring them takes some work. First, make yourself available to immediately respond and pick up any requested uniforms and equipment when notified by a larger department. By doing this and taking everything you're offered, you will make friends with the person responsible for running the agency’s uniform department. He or she will remember this when more become available later. You will also be remembered in the event that other non-uniform equipment may need a new home when it is replaced by newer models.[PAGEBREAK]At the outset, you’ll need to put in some work to identify what you've been given. You will usually get a mix of uniforms and equipment in various sizes, conditions, colors, and cuts, in both men's and ladies' styles thrown together in mixed boxes. While some might discount such a mishmash as junk, a little time and effort sorting everything into sizes, seasons, and other categories will likely reveal a wide range of useful items. Initial sorting will also provide you with a good base to start from and make it easier for you to organize and manage your own uniform program going forward.

You might be tempted to automatically trash any soiled garments you receive. This is the biggest mistake you can make. You are dealing with "free surplus" and should expect to expend a little labor. For example, I've acquired white uniform shirts that had collar stains, pen marks on the pockets, and some dirt and dust from being stored or turned in unwashed. A little bleach and soap powder in a home or department washer usually gets them clean. I then fold them and box them until ready to issue them to my officers.

Only when ready to outfit an officer do I take a uniform to be issued to the local dry cleaner (where I have already worked out a discount plan or can get the same prices provided to larger departments). There, I have it cleaned and pressed and the shoulder patches sewn on. The cost of this service is usually less than $8 per shirt. Compared to the $69.95 price the larger department paid originally for the shirt plus labor to sew on the patches, it is a real budget saver. You can’t tell the difference when "old" and new shirts are compared side by side.

When it comes to nylon coats and jackets, there's no need to do much other than pull loose threads left over from shoulder or rank patch removal. New patches will cover where the original ones were and most sewing holes will close back up when cleaned. 

When sorting, don't make the mistake of throwing away a coat without a liner, or a spare liner by itself. Many officers like me don't like the bulkiness of a coat with a liner and immediately remove it when issued a coat or jacket. When turned in, these are sometimes still separated. You may also get forgotten liners that are located later and turned in. You can frequently pair the extras up later since even different brands of coats all use similar systems for attaching them. Remember, do not waste your money to dry clean any coat until you are ready to issue it. It will probably cost $12.50 for cleaning and patches versus $225 for the same coat new.

For all uniform items, do not waste your premium storage space. Keep only a few each of extremely small or odd sizes of all uniforms and pass the extras on to other departments.

Another way for small departments and agencies to save money is to work together to create a "uniform depository." Participating departments can combine all of their new and used uniforms and leather and nylon duty equipment in a single place. When officers leave, stock their used uniforms and equipment in the depository. When new officers are hired, send them to the depository first. You can usually outfit them without having to purchase many new items.

Departments can then get together and annually order uniforms and equipment in common or popular sizes to stock the depository. By ordering together, you can usually negotiate a better deal from vendors and share in the savings. Even if all agencies don't wear the same shirts or pants, you can still participate with coats or the leather and nylon equipment, and then only draw from those items. This system also works perfectly if you can get surplus uniforms from the larger agencies and add to your stock whenever items are made available.

Although all of this might seem like a lot of trouble, some planning and legwork to acquire gently used uniforms really pays off. When I worked for the state, I located several large municipal departments that wore the same uniform items as we did. I acquired pants from one and shirts and coats from another. I only had to purchase eight to 10 special, plus sized uniform items and the usual leather gear and hats per year to outfit two departments (police and corrections) with almost 50 employees.

Even though I spent full price for some items, I slashed my annual budget by 85%. The uniforms we acquired were being warehoused and could not be re-issued by those departments, so they were happy to move them. You could not tell the difference, and all it took was a few phone calls to make it happen. At another agency, the cost savings from a uniform program allowed me to spend money on better badges and equipment we would not have otherwise been able to afford.

I highly recommend this type of operation for small, cash-strapped agencies. If you can convince your boss you need more than the usual storage space to accommodate the program, the benefits and cost savings will really surprise you once you get it rolling. 

John E. Milstead Jr. has been involved in law enforcement in Ohio since 1982. The former chief now serves as an auxiliary officer for the Madison County (Ohio) Sheriff's Office while working as the full-time security manager for all Ohio State University libraries.

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