Tactical vs. Traditional Uniforms

What you wear on duty says a lot about you. “A uniform is the foundation of the police officer—it’s important for identification, appearance and protection,” says Chief Jeff Chudwin, “to the citizens you serve and the criminals you encounter. … The public is analyzing the way you present yourself from the first impression—and a professional appearance means a prepared officer.”

The importance of uniforms and appearing professional must not be understated. How you appear to the public not only reflects on you, but also on your department and your fellow LEOs across the nation. Moreover, uniforms serve a practical purpose. They should be designed to comfortably accommodate the essential gear for the job. What good is your gear if you can’t use it when you need it?

But uniforms can be controversial among officers. The dichotomy splits largely on so-called traditional vs. tactical uniforms. Traditional uniforms tend to project a more approachable, service-orientated policing appearance. They might also reflect the history of department. Tactical uniforms project a more practical, ready-for-anything appearance.

So which is right?

It depends. Everyday uniforms require compromise. From directing traffic to serving warrants to speaking with community groups to chasing bad guys—officers see a lot in uniform. It’s simply impossible to be dressed optimally for every situation you’ll encounter in such a dynamic line of work. Let’s consider the compromises we make in what we wear, so you can determine what fits best at your department. 
Tactical & Traditional Uniforms
Let’s define our terms. Traditional uniforms (sometimes referred to as “Class A”) generally include dress-style shirts (short or long sleeve) and dress-style pants (with no cargo pockets), both with sharp creases. Footwear is usually dress-style, laced black shoes. The police hat can be eight-point or round, and incorporates a badge.
Tactical uniforms (“Class B”) commonly include cargo-pocket pants, and BDU- or TDU-style shirts with a softer appearance (no creases, ironing, etc.). Sometimes a jumpsuit (“Class C”) is used for special assignments. Footwear is generally boots. The hat can be a baseball-style cap or a combat helmet.
In general, the tactical uniform is perceived as more practical for the physical aspects of policing. Police officers now have more everyday gear to carry, and that means officers need to be able to accommodate that on their uniform. “We need a uniform support system for all the gear needed today,” says Chudwin, who is a proponent of the tactical—or what he likes to call a “street-friendly”—uniform. He likes what it stands for: being ready for the job and carrying all your gear with you so when you need it, it’s easily accessible.
Tactical uniforms provide wearability for many situations, and BDU pockets can store life-saving gear. “Years ago, if you told officers they were going to carry a tourniquet on the street, they would think you fell off the moon. Today we train our officers to survive gunshot wounds on the street with the gear they carry. Situations that in the past may have been fatal will now not be fatal because the officers are trained to use a vital piece of equipment,” Chudwin says. “We’re not talking about an issue of just looks, but officer safety and life-saving critical differences by wearing a different type of uniform that allows the carry of additional needed gear.”
This isn’t to say that officers in traditional uniforms are necessarily less safe. Sometimes too much gear can present an issue, especially if the officer doesn’t feel confident using all the tools. Remember: It’s not always about how much you can carry, but how well you can use what you have.
Therefore, some departments opt for a mix of traditional and tactical uniforms depending on the assignment. “The agency where I am employed dictates which uniforms we wear and when.” Lt. Chris Cole with Storm Lake (Iowa) PD says. “For normal day-to-day functions, we wear the traditional class-A style police uniforms because they give us a professional appearance and signal authority. If I was working a special project (i.e., warrant sweeps, probation/parole checks, etc.), I would wear a tactical-style uniform because they’re more durable and have multiple pockets to store extra gear.”
Others object to tactical uniforms on other grounds. To them, the tactical uniform presents a “militarization-of-the-police” appearance. Officers should be perceived as community servants, they say. Chief Scot Haug with Post Falls, Idaho PD says, “We are not the military. We are a police force that works for the community. I see agencies across the country that are allowing officers to wear uniforms that make it really difficult to tell the military from law enforcement. In my opinion, this is a mistake and we’re getting away from what the community expects from its police.”
Proponents of the tactical uniform believe that officers are still the police no matter what they wear, and the public will recognize them as such. “Do you think a citizen cares whether or not you have military-style BDU pockets when you’re coming to assist them?” Chudwin asks. “No.” Many believe that the tactical uniform makes an officer look like they mean business, giving them an edge. “It’s a statement: We are here and we’re ready to take on the job,” says Chudwin.   
In contrast, traditional uniforms tend to project a clean, service-orientated look that resonates with and unites a lot of officers. “We’re community servants and there is certainly a time for tactical operations and SWAT team and special units to take care of a situation,” Haug says. “In my opinion, I don’t think on a day-to-day basis police officers should look like SWAT officers. We should look like community servants.” 
Even though Haug prefers a traditional type of uniform, he’s a realist. He acknowledges that sometimes, with the work officers are doing, the traditional uniform isn’t practical all the time. Example: Officers are involved in accidents, foot pursuits and a variety of different things that can damage the uniform and, in turn, be too expensive to repair. he says. Moreover, traditional uniforms aren’t always as comfortable as the tactical uniform. “The most important thing to me when it comes to uniforms is to provide a professional image while at the same time providing comfort for the officer. Both are number one,” Haug says.
Is there some happy medium between the two? Many brands have recognized the need for hybrid styles, blending traditional cuts with tactical touches. “There are options out there with different types of BDU pockets so that it doesn’t look as ‘tactical,’” Chudwin says.
Uniform Considerations
What you wear is influenced by a number of factors. Most departments have a uniform policy with particular options to select from, and what you wear may depend heavily on your assignment type. “In our community, we break it down to type-A style, which includes a long-sleeved shirt, a tie, and pants. Our class-B uniform is a short-sleeved shirt and no tie, and pants. A jumpsuit, or class-C uniform, is a routine patrol type of uniform, and is more of the tactical uniform,” says Haug.
Some say it depends on the shift they work. If they’re working a day shift where they’re more visible to the public, they want to appear more uniformed to the community so they’d wear a traditional uniform. For night shifts, they don a tactical uniform.
Regardless of style, uniforms should be as comfortable as possible to ensure optimal work performance. Officers must be able to move quickly and freely if a situation requires it. They should also be durable enough to stand up to the harsh environments that officers often find themselves in. Depending on your location, make sure to choose the right material so you won’t overheat during the summer or freeze during the winter. Find fabrics or blends that wick moisture away from the body so you’re protected in all weather conditions. If you carry a lot of essential gear, consider clothing with multiple pockets that can distribute weight evenly. This is important to reduce risk of back, neck or shoulder injury.
“If you wear a uniform, you should wear body armor,” says Lt. Cole. If your agency doesn’t provide body armor or if you can’t afford to buy it yourself, there are some great resources out there like Capt. Travis Yates’ Vest for Life project (www.VestforLife.com).
Also be conscious of the color of clothing you wear on duty. Uniform visibility is important for officer safety, especially at night. Be visible when you’re managing traffic at night by wearing a bright reflective vest (check out “Time for Reflection” by Pat Tobin and Joe Englerin. Law Officer, August 2012). But also be wary of the “white triangle of death” that attracts the wrong kind of attention: Don’t wear white T-shirts underneath your uniform. Chudwin states, “In low-light, your eye is drawn to the white undershirt. Where your eye is drawn, your finger points. If your finger is pointing there, your gun is pointing there. That’s one of the most devastating areas to be hit in your body, other than through the brain. You want a dark T-shirt to cover that up.”   
As for footwear, comfort is the first consideration. You can’t run after suspects for very long if your boots are too heavy or if you’re getting blisters from ill-fitting shoes. If you choose to wear boots, make sure they’re lightweight and provide ankle support. Also, consider water-resistant (e.g., Gortex lined) footwear so that you don’t have to worry about water damage. Durability and the amount of maintenance are also important. You want footwear to last a long time through any kind of weather or situation, and then be easily cleaned to maintain a professional appearance. Rather than buying insulated boots for the winter, Chudwin suggests instead wearing wool socks during the cold months instead so that your feet don’t overheat when it gets hot.
Whether you prefer tactical, traditional or a combination of the two, your uniform choice says a lot about your department. It should suit the conditions your officers will most likely face in their work. Even if you can’t choose what to wear, you can have control over how to present yourself in a professional and prepared manner. Keep your uniform clean and pressed, shine your shoes or boots, and keep your badge polished. Interviews with suspects who have assaulted officers indicate that a professional appearance often deters an attack and a sloppy appearance may invite one.
In the end, “It’s not really about which uniform you wear, it’s how you wear it and how you carry yourself,” Lt. Cole says. A professional appearance improves your command presence so that you do your job safely and effectively.
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