By the time they graduated from the academy earlier in March, Minneapolis’ newest police officers had everything they needed to bring criminals to justice.
Everything, that is, except a gun. And handcuffs. And a flashlight.
For that they were sent to KEEPRS or Uniforms Unlimited, among a handful of Twin Cities-area stores that sell uniforms, bullet-resistant vests, flashlights and other gear to make officers’ jobs easier and safer — but that the department does not automatically provide.
Before hitting the streets, new recruits are required to buy their own sidearms ($600-$700) and holsters ($100-$200), although the department does supply ammunition. Collapsible batons, chemical spray, handcuffs — both metal and the plastic variety used in riot-type situations — and a leather utility belt to hold these items are other must-haves.
A new officer in some Minnesota cities can spend $7,000 just to hit the streets, and that cost is rising every year as departments and officers are presented with a range of new gear, attire and technology. The debate over officer gear has intensified lately as law enforcement agencies around the country are spending millions of dollars to outfit officers with new body-camera technology.
“It’s been a learning process over a lot of years,” said Rich Roberts, spokesman for the Florida-based International Union of Police Associations. As a result, he says, police gear has gotten “more effective, lighter and less intrusive.”
But it is up to each officer to decide what to wear and how much to spend.
Minneapolis police Sgt. Steven Bantle, an 18-year veteran who runs the training academy, said that officers receive an annual equipment allowance of $980 — rookie cops get three years, or $2,940, up front to start building their wardrobes.
New recruits, who take home between $54,496 and $69,576 a year, often pay hundreds of dollars out of pocket to buy extra gear.
The list of what police officers must buy is long.
Minneapolis provides each officer with a badge, but some officers like buying an extra shield or two to carry, for example, in their wallets. Each one costs about $100, and that money comes out of their own pocket.
Some equipment choices, Bantle says, reflect a generational divide. Older officers often prefer heavy-duty Mag-Lite or Streamlight flashlights that were popular in the 1980s and 1990s. These imposing flashlights can be used as a club in a pinch, unlike the newer and smaller high-intensity models.
Like with most modern technology, gear is always getting smaller, lighter and less cumbersome.
“Everything we carry is more compact,” Bantle said.
The department also has begun phasing out older handguns in favor smaller and lighter models, like a 9-millimeter Smith & Wesson M & P. Exceptions are made for those working undercover and senior officers who are allowed to continue carrying full-size revolvers.
Costs can soar for the everyday gear that might not be as exciting, but just as essential.
Rubber gloves, inclement weather gear (hats, jackets and boots), tourniquets, traffic whistles and other items that police say are indispensable can make shopping trips pricey, fast, Bantle said.
Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, himself a longtime Minneapolis police officer, said the cost of outfitting officers has risen in part due to shifting demographics.
For example, female officers have to be specially fitted for protective equipment and firearms that were designed primarily for males, he said.
Law enforcement officers have tweaked their attire, like switching to clip-on ties “so if somebody grabbed you by the tie, just like they grab you by the hair, now these ties just come off,” Stanek said.
It used to be that officers lugged around rosewood nightsticks and bulky bullet-resistant vests that made it difficult to get in and out of police cruisers. That gear has been replaced with collapsible batons and Kevlar vests that provide greater range of motion.
Officers now carry Ebola kits and gas masks, both of which are doled out by the department. Department-issued Tasers have also become part of the modern officer’s tool kit, as well.
“The whole idea was when officers had substantial problems, then the department looked at them and said omigosh, that officer would have been safer if … ” said Roberts, with the International Union of Police Associations. “And that evolved into equipment changes.”
Joining a growing number of cities across the country, Minneapolis police has started testing two different body camera systems on 36 of its patrol officers. If the pilot program is successful, Mayor Betsy Hodges has pledged another $1.1 million for a departmentwide rollout this fall.
Other changes have been more subtle, such as the department’s switch last year from cotton to a powder-blue shirt that is mostly rayon, a material that doesn’t wrinkle as much, giving officers a sharper look.
Police departments have long wrestled with gear and attire. Burnsville Police Chief Eric Gieseke said that his department was part of an ill-fated fashion experiment in the 1980s in which officers started wearing sports coats over their department blues and bullet-resistant vests.
“It was very confusing on calls, because people could not easily recognize them as police officers,” he said.
Montevideo Police Chief Adam Christopher said a new officer requires up to $7,000 “right off the bat, just to get him or her working.”
The 10-member department also gives its officers a yearly equipment stipend — about $800 — but unlike in larger departments like Minneapolis, all the main equipment is furnished.
The soaring equipment costs is coming at a time of increasing debate about whether local police have become too militarized, following clashes last fall between heavily armed police and protesters in the wake of the police killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.
Critics point to the controversial U.S. Department of Defense program that has supplied police departments across the country with billions of dollars in military-grade equipment since 1997.
But local law enforcement argue that the extra firepower is needed to keep pace with criminals.
“We’ve gone from revolvers … to machine guns. To me, we’re just trying to make sure that they keep them safe and defend them against what they’re up against,” said John Delmonico, head of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis, which represents the city’s rank-and-file officers. “When you’re sending a cop into a very high-risk situation … you want them as best safety-equipped as they can be.”