Written by Kirby Beck
We in law enforcement need to realize that high-visibility apparel is becoming the recognized standard for “highway workers.” The 2003 Manual for Uniform Traffic Control Devices, known in the industry as “the MUTCD” has mandated that highway workers wear high-visibility safety garments and apparel while working on or near the roadway. This means garments with fluorescent colors and retroreflective stripes, which, when illuminated by headlights, identify the wearer’s human form. For law enforcement, the latest standard is the ANSI 207-2006 standard for high-visibility public safety garments.
Many in law enforcement would like to believe that “highway workers” only include construction workers and flaggers. MUTCD’s definition of “workers” includes anyone working along a roadway. It clearly includes law enforcement, emergency and EMS personnel, wrecker operators and others. Many states, as well as OSHA, are beginning to mandate and enforce the use of “hi-viz” garments by all roadway workers, including law enforcement.
Plainly put, this will affect the look of tomorrow’s police uniforms. Officers often find themselves in and near traffic, whether dealing with a traffic violator, working a traffic crash, or merely crossing the street from their cruiser to a call. Many officers spend large parts of their day walking in and near traffic. Most become accustomed to it and desensitized to the inherent danger. Virtually no officers put on their hi-viz vest every time they stop a car or walk near traffic.
Unfortunately, drivers today are more distracted than ever by increasingly high-tech devices like multi-function cell phones, PDAs and navigation systems. In addition, as traffic congestion swells, tempers can flare and drivers’ attention wanes even more. Drivers impaired by alcohol, drugs, eye conditions or even diminished abilities due to age further add danger to officers walking in or near traffic.
Officers wear body armor throughout their shift to be prepared for sudden and unexpected attacks from weapons. Police are safer wearing hi-viz apparel for those real, but unexpected, threats from traffic as well. That apparel could include special hi-viz vests incorporating their body armor, or hi-viz jacket systems, usable nearly all year long. Such apparel has been mandated and worn by police, emergency workers and others in the United Kingdom and other countries around the world for a number of years.
American officers say they are resistant to wearing hi-viz uniforms because they want to be able to be covert and stealthy. Some say they fear that being seen and recognized by criminals will set them up to be shot or sniped at. A recent FBI Officers Killed Summary shows that eight officers were killed in nonspecific “ambush” situations. That same year 10 officers died when struck by vehicles.
In the 10 years, between 1996 and 2005, FBI records show 102 officers were killed in ambushes, including 62 in unprovoked attacks. The majority of these were officers in traditional patrol uniforms, while a number of officers were in plainclothes, on special assignment or off duty. Certainly, most were not killed in the scenarios envisioned by hi-viz garment skeptics.
In those same 10 years, the FBI reported that 71 officers were killed while investigating a suspicious person or circumstances. How many were mistaken as prowlers and shot by fearful residents? Could more identifiable uniforms have prevented any of those deaths? In the 10 years that saw 102 officers killed in some sort of “ambush,” 121 officers died after being struck by motor vehicles while conducting vehicle stops, motorist assists, directing traffic or working crash scenes. Where is the bigger risk? The number of officers injured in an ambush is a statistic gathered by the FBI because it involves a crime.
The number of officers injured as a result of being struck by a vehicle is not collected. Presumably, most were unintentional actions, not ordinarily considered a crime.
Anecdotal evidence, combined with experience, will tell us that most of the officers struck by motorists did not die, though many had their careers end as a result. What the statistics do clearly tell us is that most assaults and murders of police officers are committed during a circumstance, or at a distance, where the identity of the officer was known and hi-viz apparel would have made no difference at all.
How Does Hi-viz Work?
Hi-viz apparel is designed to enhance conspicuity, the ability to stand out and be seen by others around them. Hi-viz apparel has two components; one works in the daylight, and the other works at night. Daytime conspicuity is aided by the use of fluorescent colors, usually fluorescent orange or fluorescent yellow. Studies have shown that fluorescent yellow stands out better for most people, even the color blind. It is also the color chosen for use in the United Kingdom.
Hi-viz apparel works at night because is uses retroreflective strips on strategic areas of the body. When illuminated by headlights, the stripes emphasize the basic human shape to the driver. They also highlight motion, which greatly increases detection by drivers. The brain is programmed to detect and react to movement. This early detection increases drivers’ reaction time to help them avoid the person in or near traffic.
Retroreflective material is often misunderstood, even feared, by police officers. In reality, retroreflective material, which is in essence nothing more than a mirror, reflects light back to observers who are only within about a 3-degree observation angle. A driver, whose headlights shine directly at the hi-viz apparel will see it reflect back intensely. That’s because, like a mirror, it is reflecting directly back toward the light source, behind which the driver sits. Depending on the distance from the subject, someone standing 10 or more feet to the side of the car may not see the reflected light at all.
If a person wearing the most highly rated hi-viz apparel walks under a streetlight, reflection from the stripes will be virtually unseen by people at ground level. The streetlight will obviously illuminate the person, but the reflective stripes won’t reflect back the light. The observation angle far exceeds 3 degrees. While demonstrating this phenomenon, the one thing that can often be seen reflecting back at ground level are the shiny surfaces of an officer’s metal badge!
The fluorescent colors in hi-viz apparel need daylight to create the brightness that appears to the human eye. They do not work at night. Their true fluorescent nature doesn’t show itself in print or photos, either. The few truly fluorescent colors work by reflecting more light than they absorb, particularly in the ultraviolet spectrum. Molecules in the fabric take the relatively short wavelengths of light and remit them as the longer, lower energy wavelengths more easily seem by humans. That is why they work particularly well on cloudy days or at dawn and dusk.
Ultraviolet light is found in higher percentages during those times. As darkness increases, fluorescent colors turn darker. When lighted by non-solar light sources, like streetlights or headlights, the colors never standout as brightly. A person standing in a dark, shadowy area while wearing a hi-viz vest would appear nearly as dark as his surroundings.
Is Performance Affected?
Will hi-viz apparel affect the way you do your job? If the experience of the police in the United Kingdom is any indicator, it likely won’t. There are certain environments in which police actually want to stand out. Officers on foot beat or bicycle patrol are easier to spot in a crowd, which can create a deterrent to crime. It also makes officers easier to locate should someone need assistance. That was the original reason police cars were painted black and white, so they would stand out and provide a visual deterrent.
Officers operating in or near traffic certainly want to seen by approaching motorists. That’s true whether they’re working a crash scene, assisting a motorist, stopping a violator or working cycle patrol. The vast majority of pedestrians and cyclists struck by motorists, whether they’re police or civilian, thought that the drivers saw them. In fact, almost none of drivers saw them, or they saw them too late to react! It is the responsibility of the police pedestrian or cyclist to take steps ahead of time to assure that drivers will see them.
As more and varying workers don hi-viz apparel, the public gets accustomed to seeing it. With everyone from street workers to garbage collectors required to wear hi-viz, it becomes mundane. Unlike the flashing blue lights on police cars, it won’t automatically announce POLICE to the public. With hi-viz yellow becoming more commonplace, in many communities, police could actually blend in with the rest of the workers wearing it, while still being visible near traffic.
There are certainly times when officers want to approach a scene without being spotted by offenders, either for their safety or to witness a violation. At that point, most officers would rather use a Romulan cloaking device than any type of police uniform. (By the way, the “Trekkies” say that the Romulans had a cloaking device before the Klingons.) The best type of concealment is always one that provides good cover at the same time. With good cover, the type of uniform one is wearing, hi-viz or not, doesn’t matter!
With the increased use and requirement of hi-viz apparel by law enforcement will come the dilemma of how to remain stealthy when you really have to. An honest evaluation of how many times in a week, a month or a year an officer must truly remain tactically hidden, without cover, will illustrate that those instances are really quite infrequent. Some police officers rarely, if ever, have to “disappear.” When they do, however, an officer needs to be prepared.
Today, many officers have some sort of hi-viz “traffic vest” with them on patrol. It’s usually found stuffed inside a patrol bag or glove box. The vest is removed for those occasional situations where the officer thinks it might be needed. A tactical cover-up can be used the same way.
A tactical cover-up is a lightweight slip-on jacket made of a black, non-shiny fabric that can put on during those occasional times when moving unseen in the dark areas between cover, if necessary. In rural areas, while working in the daylight, a camo pattern may prove more effective. A tactical cover could be easily carried in a patrol bag or patrol bike’s rack bag and donned when covertness and stealth are essential.
It would cover the hi-viz uniform and even a traditional uniform with its shiny metal badge. It could be outfitted with subdued patches and POLICE ID, visible to only the closest of observers. This would serve as a sort of “anti-traffic vest” garment, worn when the risk from traffic is zero and the risk from gunfire is high. This is a solution for a problem that may not yet exist for most officers.
As hi-viz uniforms increase in use, the request for a cover-up may increase as well. If LEOs demand such an item, the uniform manufacturers should be geared up and ready to provide them.
In preparation for this article, a question was sent out on the International Police Mountain Bike Association’s (IPMBA’s) e-mail network questioning the value of a stealth uniform versus a hi-viz one and whether a tactical cover-up would help. The respondents were all bike patrol officers, for whom stealth is considered a premium and tactical advantage. Bike patrol officers were selected, in large part, because many are already wearing uniforms with more hi-viz features than most police use. A tactical cover-up may meet a need for them right now.
To this author’s surprise, those who responded were nearly all advocates of wearing the hi-viz all the time, feeling it is better to be safe than sorry. All were from the U.S., with the exception of one officer from Australia, who was a huge proponent of hi-viz garments. No one responded from Great Britain where hi-viz has been mandated for years.
Can’t the conclusion be drawn that this just isn’t a problem? One U.S. respondent felt that the hi-viz uniform made it that much more obvious to the people they were arresting that they actually were the POLICE trying to detain them. He also felt it would be helpful in convincing a judge in a trial resulting from resisting arrest, too. That has been a problem when the uniform includes shorts, and a low-profile, poorly marked polo shirt.
A couple of respondents gave accounts of their officers being struck and injured because they lacked sufficient hi-viz apparel. One said the policies were changed requiring hi-viz gear, the other said that it hadn’t. OSHA already requires it. A respondent from Texas said that his bike officers wear black uniforms and jackets to maximize their stealth ability. But since they operate in traffic at night, and they don’t have a death wish, their uniforms all have Scotchlite™ reflective striping on the back so they are seen by overtaking traffic.
A respondent from Florida said that his department issues non-shiny black helmet covers to put on while surveilling areas from behind cars and bushes. He was the only one who really spoke in favor of the idea of temporary stealth cover-ups.
In the end, none of the respondents reported that hi-viz or retroreflective uniforms had noticeably reduced their ability to stealthily fight crime in their community or that they felt their safety had been compromised. Most felt safer.
In the meantime, the evidence from users seems to indicate that hi-viz apparel isn’t a bogeyman after all. As with many changes within law enforcement, many cops won’t change their minds until they’re convinced beyond a doubt or until the change is forced upon them, whichever comes first. This change is coming. It is a change that will improve the safety of uniformed police officers for whom working in or near traffic is an everyday part of the job. Officers in traffic will be able to wonder less often, “Can they see me now?”
Kirby Beck is retired after 28 years with the Coon Rapids, MN Police. He is a certified IPMBA Police Cyclist Instructor Trainer. He is an expert witness in bicycle crash cases.
Published in Law and Order, Sep 2008