Q&A: Trends in Law Enforcement Apparel

May 10, 2019
A panel of experts chime in on trends in law enforcement apparel and uniforms – and offer some insight to where it’s going

Style. Fit. Function. Apparel for the law enforcement officer must play a delicate balancing act with all three. Your agency may be looking to update its appearance, improve the officer safety by better performing fabrics, or just simply put officers into something just a little more comfortable. Hopefully the wants, needs, and a few nice-to-haves will match the budget. 

Knowing which direction to take in selecting the clothing officers will wear can be daunting—especially with how quickly the industry changes year over year. To help provide a brief state of the industry to the current trends of law enforcement uniforms, a few industry experts offered their insights.

A special thank you to our panel of subject matter experts for providing their insight: David Hein, Vice President and GMM for 5.11 Inc.; Stephen Blauer, Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Blauer; Steve Zalkin, President of North American Uniforms and Manufacturers & Distributors (NAUMD); Ace Laserna, National Sales Manger – Armor and Joe Ruggeri, Senior VP of Apparel Merchandising for Propper International; as well as Jeff Searcy, President of Tac Wear USA.

How have body armor carriers blended into today’s uniform? 

"I believe the trend is about integrating body armor into an officer’s uniform. To me it is about functionality one and comfort two. Public safety officers and first responders carry more equipment today then ever before. Utilizing body armor strapping systems with shirt carriers allows the wearer to carry a body camera, conceal communication wires, carry a backup weapon, a tourniquet or extra handcuffs, all necessary items for job performance. Typically, these garments have additional pockets to carry equipment. A goal with these uniform carriers is to take weight off an officer’s duty belt which causes hip and back health issues and disperse the weight across a person’s torso. The comfort of these products is a secondary benefit." NAUMD 
"There is definitely a trend of going to outer carrier for armor. Some of these are uniform carrier styles and some are tactical style. It is not necessarily a need for more covert armor but geared more toward using armor in an external carrier for comfort. An external carrier is much easier to don and doff and also provides better air flow between the body and the ballistics. We are seeing more uniform carriers used because it is a way to take advantage of an external carrier while also blending the body armor into the uniform." Propper 
"Over the last 20+ years we have seen a move from the traditional concealed carrier and soft armor to the external carrier and soft armor and/or ballistic plates. The more recent orders have been almost exclusively for external carriers with level IIIA armor with the carriers built to accommodate a hard plate. This movement over time to external carriers has allowed the officers to be better protected, cooler and more comfortable on duty. Some agencies will try to stay with the concealed armor for a clean look. Others will conceal the armor due to political pressures to have a non-aggressive and non-tactical look. Most will stay with the external carriers due to comfort and functionality as the public is now used to seeing the officers in external carriers, even as society keeps getting less respectful of law enforcement." Tac Wear USA 

How has apparel changed to meet the needs of everyday carry items? 

"Carriers have become more user friendly. 5.11’s Hexgrid uniform outer carrier is designed to remove everyday carry (EDC) items from the duty belt onto the body. You are allowing for more room on the duty belt if you need it, as well as easier and quicker access to your EDC by having it on the body, whether it be magazines, radios, firearm, etc." 5.11 Inc. 
"From less lethal to communication items, the real estate on the officer’s vest and belt is getting packed with gear (e.g. Tasers, radios, cameras, utility pouches, etc). This is also due to the officers wanting to keep as much of the gear weight off of the waist for comfort and to reduce back and hip problems. Despite the more aggressive look, we anticipate there will be more officers wanting to wear leg holsters and packs. The duty shirts and pants are being replaced with more tactical or combat shirts and pants as they allow the wearer to have more pockets, VELCRO panels and adjusters as well as performance materials to keep the officer cooler, fresher and having garments that last much longer." — Tac Wear USA

Has there been integration of tactical medical equipment? 

"We have seen several tourniquets integrated into shirtsleeves and pant legs but feel it is overly expensive, cumbersome to wear, and not as effective as stand alone tourniquets. We have developed a Napoleon pocket on our ArmorSkin (front and center) to store officer IFAK items. They can also be added to the belt or MOLLE. In addition Blauer is working on a full series of pouches to address emerging needs such as Narcan and other specialty carry items as they are developed." Blauer 
"There is a definite need for this. Many officers are wearing tourniquets, Epi Pens, and anti-opiate pens on their belts. In the past, this was left to fire and medic services. Often, the police are first to arrive on a scene and need to render immediate assistance before EMS arrives." Propper

Are agencies looking for high-performance COTS options? 

"No different than the weapon you’re using today versus the weapon you used 10 years ago or the technology in your vehicle you had 10 years ago versus today, officers’ uniforms are becoming more advanced as well. The ultimate end goal for 5.11 is to provide the most comfortable, functional and durable product for these individuals. 5.11’s product development process is 100% end-user based. We incorporate the needs of those officers into every product we develop." 5.11 Inc.
"Stretch is being added to traditionally rigid uniforms as are specialty finishes to keep officers drier in wet weather and fabrics that wick moisture for more comfort in hot weather. COTS clothing will not meet the durability, laundering, or colorfastness needs of everyday uniform wear, so the fabrics and trims for everyday uniform wear must be developed from scratch to meet these unique and difficult requirements. It is also often more expensive than LE agencies can afford. In our opinion, the comfort and performance gap between COTS clothing and LE uniform wear is getting smaller every year." Blauer
"I used to say the uniform industry trailed behind the athletic and fashion industry by five to ten years with the use of fabric technology and innovation. Today, I believe the opposite exists and the uniform industry many times leads in fabric technology and innovation. The change is directly related to uniform research performed by the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research Center and the Navy Clothing and Research Facility. With military and law enforcement so closely related military developed products are adapted for law enforcement.

It depends on who you ask but, the trend favors agencies looking for uniforms that look and feel more like COTS clothing. I believe the answer is more about law enforcement age demographics. As chiefs retire and younger personnel move up into decision making roles, the statement takes on reality. The younger demographic has grown up with Dockers, Nike, Under Armour and want to work in similar apparel. The 40-year old and younger officer has never worn a pair of traditional 16 ounce, 55% poly / 45% wool dress style uniform trousers (still my personal favorite pant)."  NAUMD 

How do you see wearable technology affecting the uniform? 

"The integration of technology into uniforms trend is absolutely going to continue. This already includes the ability to affix a camera to an outer carrier or uniform, as well as a technology to measure an officer’s health in a high stress situation. 5.11 has been able to meet the needs of these advancing technology trends and will continue to do so with the uniform collections we provide. — 5.11 Inc.
"LE is going digital and there is nothing we can do to stop it. Courts want video, audio evidence, and the more the better. Our goal is to make camera systems and other electronic items that are developed secure and truly wearable, not just stuck on the uniform with VELCRO or magnets. They are expensive and officer retention is important to the agencies, as is video quality. Cameras, for example, need to feel like they are part of the uniform, and they also must be transferable to every layer, and wearable in any weather condition. That is what we are focusing on." — Blauer 
"The trend will continue to accelerate. There is no stopping innovation. You will see uniforms that monitor officer heart rates and body temperature, uniforms that change color with the environment, wearables with electronic sensors, uniforms with solar-powered fabric that will recharge cell phones and flashlights." — NAUMD 

"Today’s uniform shirts feature tabs for hooking up cameras and microphones. Some even incorporate a channel with the garment for running communication cable. For SWAT, newer armor carriers also incorporate these features for easy connectivity with team communication." — Propper

"The equipment is leaning to a military dynamic with battery, power issues, wireless, data management, etc. In addition, rights of citizens, the press, etc. are becoming more in play with regards to the public safety. We anticipate that there will be more smart technology to handle all of the camera and microphone. We also see power features in the future to include embedded fiber optics to power the units and report back GPS, medical info such as heart rate for real time feedback to supervisors, and more. Extra pockets, pouches and packs will be required as the officers now are a true mobile office with technology for communications, electronic note taking, ticket generation, report writing as well as less lethal options, weapons and accessories." — Tac Wear USA

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