I-Team: New police uniforms more expensive

CINCINNATI - The police department has radically changed the uniform worn by nearly a thousand officers.

The Greater Cincinnati Police Museum says city officers had been wearing white shirts with their uniforms since 1856. The most recent design has been in use as long as anyone can remember.

The new uniform is entirely navy blue.

James Craig, the city's first police chief hired from outside the department, spent more than three decades as a member of the Los Angeles Police Department. The new uniform so closely resembles his old one, the style and color descriptions bear the letters LAPD.

A debate over shirt colors would rarely draw the attention of the I-Team, but this is about more than just white or blue. It's also about green. The new uniforms will cost Cincinnati taxpayers more than $500,000 this year.

The new shirts and pants are more expensive than the old ones, and because the chief wanted to make the change quickly, the city did not shop around for the best deal.

"We had World Choir Games, and I wanted to make sure that all our officers were wearing the blue shirt," said Chief Craig. "I wanted us to be in our sharp, new uniforms. Roy Tailors made that happen."

Roy Tailors has been the exclusive supplier of police uniforms to the city for 40 years.

"We delivered these uniforms two weeks prior to the choir games," said Randy Loftspring, owner of Roy Tailors. "I believe they look really sharp, and the world thought they looked great."

The city's latest contract with Roy Tailors expired at the end of September, but purchasing department issued an extension in July without seeking competitive bids.

A change order approving the new the prices and specs was signed in September, even though the police department had already purchased new short sleeve shirts and pants for every officer months earlier.

"We were already in a contract," said Chief Craig when we questioned why the city didn't shop around for the new uniforms.

That contract was for white shirts made of a blend of cotton and polyester. The city is now buying blue shirts made of a blend of wool and polyester. Most other specifications have also changed in a complete redesign of the department's uniform that was approved by a police committee in June.

The biggest change is the price.

The city paid $29.50 for the old cotton-blend, short sleeve shirt. The new wool-blend, short sleeve shirt costs $39.90 from Roy Tailors. That's a 35 percent increase, paid without competitive bidding. To issue four shirts per officer, times 1,000 officers, the city is paying $41,600 more for these short sleeve shirts than the old ones.

Using the same math, the new long sleeve shirts will cost the city an extra $50,000 this year, and the year-round uniform pants add another $32,000 compared with the old ones.

Don't blame Roy Tailors.

"I gave them a fantastic deal," Loftspring said.

He's right. The I-Team couldn't find a cheaper price on the same brand of shirt, "Flying Cross" from Cincinnati-based Fechheimer Brothers.

"I take a lot of pride in supporting the local police agency," said Loftspring, "and I wasn't going to take advantage of them in a situation like this."

We did find a department-approved long sleeve shirt for $2.50 less at Arslan Uniforms, just a few blocks down Dalton Street from Roy Tailors.

Until recently, Cincinnati police officers were forbidden from shopping anywhere else.

"There was talk early on that, well they can only go to Roy's. Not if they're spending their own money," said Chief Craig.

The police chief overruled his own staff to allow officers to shop at other uniform suppliers when paying for additional items out of their own pockets.

Arslan Uniforms presented its shirts to Chief Craig, and he approved them after testing them himself.

Steve Arslan submitted bids to the city to supply police and fire uniforms in the late 1990s, but he was unable to unseat Roy Tailors.

"No other uniform supplier has been able to break through the barrier of the Cincinnati Police Department," Arslan said.

When the police department decided to buy an all-new uniform, it talked only with Roy Tailors. Arslan was not given a chance to bid on the deal worth more than $500,000 this year.

"The contract is irrelevant," said Arslan. "They just went down there, ordered the products, and the taxpayers paid for it."

City officials insist the soon-to-expire contract allowed the police department to buy the new uniforms from Roy Tailors without opening up the bid process, even though the prices and specifications had changed.

"Do we then open it up for bidding because we're going to a different uniform?" asked Chief Craig. "I don't know if we have to do that."

The city may have been able to save some money shopping online. We were able to find the "Flying Cross Soft Shell Jacket" at an online retailer for $40 less than Roy Tailors is charging the city.

At the time of writing, Blumenthal Uniforms was selling the jacket for $87.99 -- Roy Tailors charges the city $128 for the same jacket (Model # 54101).

Rachel Loftspring, Roy Tailors' attorney, wrote a lengthy explanation when we asked why the city was paying $40 more for the jackets. She pointed out that Roy Tailors expends labor and materials to add custom fittings, name tapes, police patches, and microphone holders to meet Cincinnati's specifications.

It's important to note that the online retailers charge for shipping and larger/custom sizes, while Roy Tailors includes those in the $128 cost.

Roy Tailors also provides the city with services that might otherwise be performed by city employees. The vendor maintains stock for the city, keeps records of each officer's uniform allotment, and individually packages, labels, and ships items for each officer. Those are requirements of the original bid package written by the city.

"We pay more to probably to Roy Tailors than other places, maybe so," said Chief Craig, "but there's an additional function, a service function, that's very useful to this organization."

The chief says he is committed to saving money, and the more expensive uniform may actually help.

Rachel Loftspring explains, "they're buying a uniform that's probably going to last three to four times as long, and this is actually a two year purchase. They're not buying uniforms in 2013 for these officers."

To cut costs, Chief Craig made the previously mandatory white hat optional, eliminated separate uniforms for winter and summer, and changed the way officers receive replacements.

Officers would automatically receive two new hats and multiple replacement uniforms every year. From now on, uniforms will be replaced only as needed, and officers will have to turn in an old shirt or pair of pants to receive a new one.

There's also one LAPD practice Chief Craig will not be importing to Cincinnati: the "uniform check."

Larger cities like Los Angeles and New York issue annual checks of $1,500 per officer. Individual officers can spend that money wherever they want, creating more competition between approved tailors. But that money is often taxed as income, and officers are not required to spend the money on uniforms.

"It would be more costly, "explains Chief Craig, "because I've talked about the uniform check as an option, and it would open it up, but it's more expensive to do it that way."

Issuing $1,500 checks to Cincinnati officers would more than double the department's uniform budget to nearly $1.5 million.

A few officers told the I-Team the new uniforms -- regardless of brand or vendor -- wear better than the old ones. Officers complained about how easily the old white uniforms would stain from simply wearing a seatbelt.

The biggest advantage of the dark blue shirts may be safety. The white shirts and hats were designed to make officers more visible, especially at night, but that also made them easy targets. The navy blue uniforms give police better cover from armed suspects.

The contract extension with Roy Tailors expires in March of next year. The city is promising to seek competitive bids in the future.

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