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How Should We Wear Our Vests?

Written by Wallace Oswald

Why are we about the only law enforcement group in the world whose uniform officers wear their vests under their shirts rather than over them?

In 1984, our department was one of the first in the state to issue officers a vest as standard equipment. At that time not a high percentage of officers wore vests and those who did under their shirts was the standard. This was primarily so the bad guys did not know whether or not an officer had on a vest. Now, most officers wear vests, and it is no longer a secret that they do.

Over the years, manufacturers have been trying to make vests lighter and cooler to wear under the shirts. Sometimes these changes have been good, but sometimes these changes have compromised the safety of the officers wearing them.

There have always been issues with vest deterioration resulting from moisture caused by sweat and from trying to keep them clean. Some manufacturers have explored the idea of undershirts that are wicked or ribbed to draw away the moisture, and even pipes that hook your vest to the car air conditioner to cool off the wearer.

Over the past 15 years, I have traveled over much of the world, including a year in Iraq with the Army National Guard. In Iraq, we wore the military outer-wear vest for over a year with temperatures over 130 degrees, which is certainly hot no matter what you are wearing. And fortunately for us, the vest did not trap in the heat, but instead allowed for breathing because it was not worn next to the body, but on the outside of clothing. In most other countries, including the new Iraqi Police Force, uniformed officers wear their vests outside their shirts. However, here in the US, only tactical teams wear vests outside their clothing for the most part.

Officers in both Great Britain and Australia also wear their vests on the outside because wearing vests outside of their shirts and uniforms allows air to flow between the vest and their bodies, keeping them much cooler. Furthermore, when they go into the department or office for paperwork, the vest can be removed easily without the officer having to practically undress. Also, wearing vests outside allows for better movement while wearing a higher-threat-level vest. For instance, this is seen in Great Britain where they are beginning to use dual-threat vests more regularly.

With these points in mind, I decided to try the idea on our officers. We purchased outer covers that matched the manufacturer of the vest and issued them. Federal money for vest purchase can be used when buying both vests and outer covers, in addition to extra shock plates. Each manufacturer has a requirement that an outer carrier be their brand.

We gave each officer the outer carrier, but also gave him the option on how to wear the new vest. About 95% of our officers were positive in their evaluation concerning the different way to wear the vest. They like it for the same reasons as their counter parts, and also like having extra pockets available.

Being a department head, I also had to think of public perception. Would the general public see our officers as more aggressive with this new look? After six months of wearing the vests in this new way, I have not heard one comment from the public about this new look. Neither have I noticed any behavior or heard any comments concerning the officers acting more aggressively.

With the change, we now are looking into the possibility of getting dual protection panels to give our officers added protection. We will continue evaluating the advantages and disadvantages, though right now, everything is positive. We will issue new officers both the under-vest and the outer-carrier, allowing them freedom of choice. I hear less complaining about wearing vests, and anything that increases the wearing of vests leading to officer protection is a plus for our department and officers.

Wallace Oswald is the Chief of Police for Batesburg-Leesville, SC and has been a chief of police for 25 years. A graduate of the FBI NA class in 1986, he may be reached via woswald@batesburg-leesville.org.

Published in Law and Order, Oct 2005

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