Browsing the police chiefs' bazaar; Convention: Salespeople show the latest in police vehicles, weaponry, gadgets and fashion when thousands of ranking officers gather to share crime-fighting ideas.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It is called the Nyala, described in promotional material as "the most cost-effective ballistic-protected vehicle in the world." It is 17 feet long, with a gun turret on top and a grenade launcher on the bottom.

It looks like a long armored truck suitable for war. And for $250,000, General Motors will sell one to your local police department. For that, you get a choice of four-speed manual or five-speed automatic transmission and air conditioning.

The police truck was one of the many items on sale at the 106th annual convention of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, a five-day gathering of thousands of top law-enforcement professionals from around the world that concluded Wednesday.

The cavernous exhibit hall at the Charlotte Convention Center was transformed into a bonanza of machine guns, body armor and police cars. Here, you could find a bulletproof vest light enough to swim in, bookends with police and bad guys shooting it out, and the latest in head restraints.

"It's a toy store for cops," says Baltimore police Col. Timothy Longo.

He did not buy the Nyala. Nor did any other police department in the United States.

Al Grice, the salesman for the urban assault vehicle, said no local police agency has ever bought one. He's sold some to the Army, the United Nations and NATO. South Africa and Colombia use it as their regular patrol car.

"If I bought one, I'd be the last one left in my department," says Kermit A. Perdew, chief of the Paducah, Ky., police force, as he gazed in amazement at the 10-ton truck that can hold 10 officers and two prisoners.

"It is just something you look at," says Perdew, who commands 81 officers. "We have no use for it. I'm glad we don't have police vehicles like this."

Grice understands Perdew's reluctance. Upstairs, the police executives attend hundreds of seminars with titles such as "The Chief's Leadership Challenge: Meeting Community Expectations."

Buying an urban assault vehicle hardly fits under most definitions of community policing. "Public perception-wise, it would be a problem," Grice admits, readily describing his product as a "big, ugly, imposing vehicle." For cities, he says, "it's threat vs. budget."

For slightly less than the Nyala RG-12, there is the RG-31 model, described as a light tactical vehicle. It's smaller and less imposing, but the package includes "proven mine protection."

Baltimore won't be getting that either. The city's officers came to talk about how they use computerized statistics to identify crime trends. They re-enact one of their weekly meetings, in which commanders quiz the majors who run districts about their problems.

The annual conference attracts chiefs from all over the world to share innovative policing ideas. Workshop topics range from computers to terrorism, from dealing with the news media to working with diverse religions.

Baltimore Sgt. Richard Hite gives a presentation on how he helps children who have witnessed violent acts. Col. Alvin Winkler talks about the department's Police Athletic League program in a workshop titled: "Filling playgrounds, not prisons."

Police chiefs attend a NASCAR race at the Charlotte speedway as well as two-hour seminars with such titles as "Enhanced Community Policing through the Development of Supporting Information Systems."

The police chief from Eugene, Ore., shows up with a slide presentation of crime-scene photos from the city's school shooting last year.

The seminar with the best title is closed to the public: "The Millennium, Militias and Mayhem: What to expect in the coming year."

Attorney General Janet Reno addresses the chiefs and credits them with the nation's declining crime rate. "You care," she says. "You're smart. You bring comprehensive solutions to the problems, and this has made a difference."

She also plugs President Clinton's program to put 100,000 more officers on the nation's streets. The program has been criticized by some members of Congress; they want to cut its funding amid complaints that the president has overstated how many officers have been hired with the grant money.

"Crime fighting is not about politics and political rhetoric," Reno says. "Now is not the time to give up on a program that has had success."

Politics takes a back seat for many police representatives, who spend their time on practical matters and shop for something more usable than a police truck that can climb mountains and survive land mines.

At least six companies offer technology to watch officers do their jobs. Kustom Signals Inc. of Kansas sells not only a camera, but a video screen mounted to the back of a police radio. Called "Eyewitness," the system costs about $5,500 per car.

Baltimore is looking at another system from a New Hampshire company.

"Good, honest cops shouldn't mind being watched," says Kustom Signals salesman Ken Finch.

Video cameras are just one addition to patrol cars. Many are equipped with computers, which allow officers to scan people's records, write reports and e-mail one another while on the road.

Patrol car lights are being re-imagined, with several companies displaying new systems of blinking red and blue lights to pull people over or to warn of an emergency.

There are "air-bag-friendly" gun mounts, a wide variety of holsters, ammunition and guns, and the latest in police batons -- a retractable club complete with a "lubricated cam and ball-bearing action." A far cry from the wooden espantoons once used by Baltimore officers.

The latest in accessories includes waterproof shoes -- "rainwear built to go beyond the minimum to provide longer service" -- and designer helmets for SWAT teams.

"The look has been changing dramatically over the years," says Mark Mordecai, vice president of marketing for Blauer, a Boston-based company that makes uniforms. "Police departments are becoming more active and less traditional."

Color has emerged as the most important issue in police fashion, and fluorescent yellow is the prime choice. Surveys show that not only does the color stand out in the dark, but it also has a soothing effect on the public.

"Cops want to look good, but at the same time there is a movement toward having them work more with the community," Mordecai says. "They want to look less intimidating. We need clothing that makes the officer approachable."

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