Vogue vests

     As a crime scene investigator, I was especially famous with the fire service for my fear of height. It would always be a great show, the firefighters throwing a ladder up the wall of a building where a roof-top burglary had to be worked. Up the fat detective would clamber, fingerprint supplies stuffed in pockets, camera and flash held in a death grip by one hand, the other trying to crush the side rails of the extension ladder. Coming down would be even more humorous, as I balanced my equipment and any collected evidence while trying to mount and descend the ladder.

     For many years, a pilot's survival vest accompanied me on these runs. It was not perfect: The pockets were generally too small to properly fit the length of a brush or the diameter of a jar of powder, there were no pouches that could carry a camera, and nothing that would house any evidence. But it was an improvement over previous systems and served me well.

     Since then, law enforcement has seen the advent of tactical vests. The original vests were job specific — a ballistic nylon vest with permanently attached pockets fit for pistol magazines, M-4 or MP-5 magazines, shotshells, and maybe grenades — a good tool for a tactical officer, but inadequate for the crime scene investigator.

     The adoption of the MOLLE (MOdular Lightweight Load-carrying Equipment) system by the U.S. military in the late 1990s ushered in a new generation of equipment carriage. The MOLLE system's versatile Pouch Attachment Ladder System, or PALS, is based on 1-inch-wide horizontal strapping, in rows 1-inch apart, secured every 1.5 inches to the backer. To secure an item to the PALS strapping, one weaves an attachment device alternately through the backing (vest, backpack, etc.) and the pouch or other PALS-based accessory. Generally, components are referred to as MOLLE rather than PALS, although MOLLE actually refers to a load bearing gear system, and PALS to the attachment system. What results is a solid and quiet attachment system that allows the user to adapt it to specific needs.

Tactical vests for the CSI

     A variety of manufacturers produce products specifically for PALS use. In preparing this review, products from Camelbak, 5.11 Tactical, Tru-Spec and Maxpedition were examined, although there are other sources as well. These suppliers, however, have a number of pouches which are different from the usual magazine-pouch variety to make them of special interest to the crime scene investigator.

     Camelbak. Camelbak is synonymous with hydration systems, but among other platforms the Petaluma, California-based company produces is the Delta-5 Tactical Vest. Available in black, olive drab and camouflage, it combines a sturdy tactical vest platform with a 102-ounce hydration bladder system.

     The Delta-5 vest is cut from a heavy-duty nylon mesh material. It includes two inner pockets, closed via zippers, just inside the front closure of the vest. A side strap system permits a wide adjustment for the wearer's girth, while an elastic system permits shoulder comfort. The inside back of the vest features a nylon enclosed foam pad, which separates the wearer from the hydration reservoir. The back includes a grab handle for emergency extrication of a downed wearer, two rows of VELCRO strapping to permit adherence of identification placards, and seven more rows of standard PALS strapping.

     There are VELCRO patches on the upper chest for identification tags, with the rest of the front also covered with PALS straps. Both right and left shoulders feature rubber-like friction pads, designed for long gun shooters, but of other value depending on instruments used in the field. Small straps and D-rings near the shoulders permit the attachment of small items, while a series of keepers on the bottom of the vest allows the wearer to add a pistol belt, whether for carrying one's firearms or to permit carrying of other tools.

     The design of the Camelbak vest will appeal to the investigator whose beat extends beyond urban areas. The investigator faced with a backlands trek will need to cart water as well as equipment, especially if one must hike any distance to work the case. The design of the vest, accompanied by about 6 pounds of water, may be a discomfort in the urban setting, but certainly makes sense in rural investigations.

     5.11. The Modesto, California-based company manufactures tactical pants that have become the law enforcement standard, but 5.11 Tactical also produces the VTAC LBE Tactical Vest. The VTAC, available in black or flat dark earth color, varies in slightly from the Camelbak vest. It is not designed as a primary hydration carrier, although a hanger and mesh pouch provide room for a hydration system. Manufactured from heavy nylon mesh, it is available in two sizes, both adjustable via side and shoulder straps, with VELCRO patches inside the shoulders providing additional strength.

     The upper back features four full rows of VELCRO strapping for PALS use and attachment of identification. Below are an additional five rows of PALS straps, providing full back usage for pouch attachment. On the chest, there is a patch of VELCRO on the upper left for ID or badge attachment. The PALS straps at both the right and left shoulders are made from an adhesive material to permit mounting of a long arm. The remainder of the front is covered with PALS strapping, however, two adjustable straps with Fastek-type buckles also cross the zipper area of the chest, providing backup closure. Along the lower periphery of the vest area is a series of attachment rings to which a belt may be attached by use of straps or keepers.

     On the front inside are two concealed pockets, similar to those used in the 5.11 Tactical Vest, but without the VELCRO attachment points, designed for document or similar storage. Hidden in the back, by the neck, is a strong grab strap for rapid extrication.

     Tru-Spec. Many agencies are familiar with Tru-Spec for its Mil-Spec BDU ensembles. But the Marietta, Georgia, company also produces field gear, including the MOLLE Compatible Field Vest. Available in black, khaki and two patterns of camo, the vest consists of nylon mesh laminated to a 1000-denier nylon fabric material. Size is adjusted via a drawstring arrangement, allowing the user to fit the vest by opening or closing the side panels. Both front and back are fully covered with PALS strapping; there are no VELCRO ID patches in front or back, although attachment would not be difficult.

     A grab strap resides just below the neck at the back, while on the top of each shoulder are two D rings for attachment of other items. Both shoulders feature long gun patches of an aggressively sticky material. The front of the vest features a zipper closure, backed up by two Fastek-style strap and buckle closures. A series of attachment loops along the bottom provide for convenient wearing of a pistol belt, while there are hidden document pockets located inside the front.

Picking pouches

     Next, users must choose pouches. For certified law enforcement officers, pouch selection can vary based on individual needs, such as a holster and accessories suspended from a belt versus a holster from many manufacturers for use with a vest, usually attached in either a tanker-style chest position or as a cross draw, plus a magazine pouch for reloads. However, crime scene equipment for an officer or a technician should also be considered.

     Pouches for the usual gamut of magazines are less than useful for criminalistic tools. However, manufacturers are offering an ever-expanding variety of pouches, which work well with the odd sizes and shapes of forensic tools.

     Maxpedition manufactures a system of shoulder slung equipment bags, the Versipack, which often finds favor for off-duty carry of firearms, cameras and other items. The company also produces a selection of pouches that are compatible on MOLLE equipment, belts or straps. For example its TacTile pockets, available in three sizes, are 1.5-inch thick pouches, from the smallest, 6 inches by 4 inches, to the largest, 8.5 inches by 6.5 inches, provide convenient storage for a variety of items: lift cards, lift tape, swabs, etc. Plus, it is designed to be stackable by attaching one to another, growing out of the vest. The FR-1 pouch, originally designed as a medical kit pouch, packs a variety of pockets and tool loops into a 7-inch by 5-inch by 3-inch fold-open pouch. It may become a field tool case, a latent print kit or serve myriad other uses.

     Maxpedition also produces a number of small pouches, reminiscent of small camera pouches, some with internal compartments, others with no separators. These include the Anemone, Cuboid Series, Triad pouch, Barnacle, Three by Five and Four by Six pouches. Maxpedition also produces the Keyper, a heavy-duty snap hook that attaches to a belt, strap or PALS loop by a VELCRO keeper. The company also markets the Grimloc D-ring, a heavy-duty carabineer-type ring designed to attach various items to loops or other holders. Finally, it produces the Slikclip, a locking S hook designed to attach items using non-PALS strap to a PALS system.

     Tru-Spec also manufactures several items that expand the tactical vest's appeal to the crime scene responder. The 100 Round SAW Pouch, designed for the magazine for the military's squad automatic weapon, is about 50 percent wider than a 20-round magazine pouch for the M-16. Tru-Spec's Medic Pouch provides a 6-inch square storage pouch, 2 inches thick. The M-16 Bandoleer/Shoulder Bag can be worn as part of a MOLLE ensemble, or shoulder slung. The shoulder bag features three pouches for 30-round M-16 magazines, and the face of each pouch is also PALS enabled, permitting one to stack additional components on the unit.

     But the MOLLE Compatible Deluxe Butt Pack is the winner as a large equipment storage bag. Designed for either MOLLE use or to be slung as a shoulder bag, it features a 450-cubic-inch main compartment, three exterior, Fastek-type closure pouches on the sides, and a small, zipable pouch on the main compartment lid. Plus the inside of the main lid also has a zippered compartment, while the main compartment has a snorkel liner that can be pulled up and out to form a waterproof top for whatever materials may be carried inside. One or two of these, attached to the back of the vest, would provide carriage for equipment or evidence.

     5.11 Tactical also provides a number of useful pouches. Its 6.6, 10.6 and 6.10 pouches — named for their dimensions in inches — provide about 2 inches of expansion, and PALS webbing on the front side to allow stacking. The Med Pouch is basically the 6.6 pouch with the addition of zip-shut mesh pockets on the front and back inside walls, providing yet more storage abilities.

     A series of pouches with tremendous potential and capacity are 5.11's Drop Pouches. The Drop Pouch was designed for combat troops' use — changing magazines, it gave them a method to quickly recover magazines rather than fumble to reinsert them into magazine pouches, or abandon them on the scene. 5.11 produces medium, large and X-large Drop Pouches. They may be opened and used for equipment carriage, or left folded for compact profiles and opened on scene to provide off-scene transport for collected evidence. The X-large Drop Pouch has a capacity of more than 1 cubic foot.

     An interesting item from 5.11 is its Chest Rig, which is designed to hold magazine pouches, a radio pouch, or similar items on the wearer's chest. It consists of a mesh platform with an inner document pouch, which is worn on the chest with straps wrapping about the chest and shoulders. While not replacing the versatility of the vest, it provides a PALS system to which a few pouches may be attached, for dedicated use. For example, select pouches could be attached to form a fingerprint platform, permitting the investigator to carry brushes, powder and lifting supplies, keeping hands free while working a scene.

Tool attachment

     How to attach these pouches to the platform? Tru-Spec uses the original, military-developed Natick Snap system, a laminated strap of polyethylene plastic and ballistic nylon, anchored at the top to the pouch, with a large snap at the bottom. The strap is then woven through the PALS webbing on both the platform and the pouch, and snapped at the bottom. 5.11 uses a similar system, but has modified it from a soft hinge at the top to a plastic keeper, through which the strap slides vertically. Calling it the Slikstick, it makes the weaving of the strap easier for the user.

     Maxpedition uses the Malice clip system, as do some other suppliers. A 1-inch wide plastic strap is woven through the webbing; the lose end is then inserted into a locking section on the other end, resulting in a strong connection which takes a significant internal pressure with a screwdriver or other pointed object to dislodge. Some products include VELCRO patches to permit the attachment of VELCRO-backed items. Further, items such as the Grimlock D-ring and Slikclip permit mounting of items not designed for PALS attachment.

Vesting up

     Tommy Garrason, senior crime scene technician for the Pt. Pierce (Florida) Police Department, discusses the utility of using tactical vests compatibility in CSI work. This veteran of more than 100 homicide investigations recognizes the usefulness of these vests in forensic investigations. Indeed, he says one could prepare pockets for specific needs (photo, latent prints, blood lift, trace collection, etc.) ahead of time and if necessary, swap pockets for specific responses. He supports the idea of having a vest prepped for response so that when the phone rings an investigator merely throws on the vest and is ready to work.

     Investigators may want to consider the color of these vests, however. Police work has traditionally identified with tactical black — but for a crime scene investigator this may not be the best choice. First, black is hot — and a CSI may spend long periods under the sun or in a structure with no air conditioning. Second, black becomes a huge, sightless pit. The availability of colors such as khaki and coyote may be both cooler and more practical.

     Det. Mark Weaver, a relative newcomer to the CSI field, has been with Florida's Martin County Sheriff's Office Forensic Science Unit for approximately a year. In that time, his experience has lead him to appreciate the ability to tote basic investigation tools. He says responding to a burglary or theft at a remote site is made easier by a vest carrying an assortment of common crime scene collection tools.

     Born of battle and improved for tactical law enforcement, vest systems have become valuable tools that provide the criminalistics community with a labor-saving device. Whether dedicated to a specific need and use, set up as a general response system or rigged to incorporate crime scene tools, hydration bladders, and basic law enforcement items such as handguns, the modern tactical vest — using the militarily proven MOLLE system — provides investigators a platform that may be individualized to meet the specific needs of each investigator.

     Paul Laska retired from a 29-year career in law enforcement. He may be contacted through his Web site at www.PaulRLaskaForensicConsulting.com