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Men [and women] in black, Ore.

April 01, 2001
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Men [and women] in black, Ore.

March 29, 2001 Thursday Sunrise Edition
Copyright 2001 The Oregonian
The Oregonian
March 29, 2001 Thursday Sunrise Edition

(WASHINGTON COUNTY, Ore) -- Brown and tan are out.

Black and gray are in.

It's a radical move, perhaps the first of its kind statewide, and sure to set tongues wagging in fashion-savvy law enforcement circles.

But Jim Spinden, Washington County sheriff and mastermind behind his department's snappy new uniform, hardly shies from the spotlight. Rather, he wants his deputies soaking in it, so they stand out from all the rest.

So their attire shouts Washington County.

"No one else in Oregon is wearing it," Spinden said of the custom-made uniforms that 275 or so officers first donned last week. They consist of black trousers with gray side stripes, gray shirt and black jacket.

"I want us to be distinct," he said.

But Spinden's the first guy to admit his fashion foray has been tough, start to finish. Though most officers seem pleased with the change, the sheriff has heard some grumbles.

"I've been told that some deputies came to work here just because they wanted to wear the brown uniform," Spinden said. Clackamas and Multnomah county sheriff's deputies wear green uniforms.

But Washington County's brown uniform, seen in various shades since it replaced a green uniform in 1970, has been laid to rest.

And not a second too soon. Deputies had to make do with threadbare uniforms until replacements arrived. The complete overhaul cost about $200,000 -- nearly three times the annual uniform budget. That meant saving money by doing without for a few months.

Manufacturing delays caused the few months to stretch to a year, an eternity in an industry reliant on good grooming for maximum respect. Needless to say, nerves -- and uniforms -- frayed.

"I had at least three shirts with holes in them," said Sonja Wreath, a deputy in the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program. Like other officers, she is issued two pairs of pants, two long-sleeved shirts, two short-sleeved shirts, a jacket and a baseball cap. The set is worth about $660; on average, Wreath needs a new uniform every two years.

"And in the crotch of my pants, where your legs rub together, the fraying got really thin," Wreath said of her old uniforms. "One pair just ripped out altogether."

Bonnie Stroup saw this and plenty more. She runs the uniform room at the sheriff's department, and daily she heard gripes about holes, rips and tears. "One officer went into a briefing, and all he did was sit down, and his pants split open," she said.

Worse, Stroup said, laundering sometimes turned the tan pants pinkish. "It was real noticeable," said Stroup, who for months sparingly doled out her tiny supply of used uniforms.

Spinden, of course, never intended his department to look shabby. He wanted a higher-quality fabric. The brown faded, and the manufacturer said it could not provide better material.

He ordered the new uniforms in spring 2000, figuring they'd be ready by summer.

Staggered delivery Pants and shirts arrived in July. But two-thirds of the made-to-order uniforms did not fit and had to be returned to the manufacturer in New Jersey. The pants and shirts came back in November, but the jackets, made by another manufacturer, were not ready until this month.

"Some people were in rags," Spinden said.

Now everybody's in the new uniform, including Spinden. He rarely wore the old, off-the-rack model because "it didn't fit very doggone good," he said. "It was tight across my thighs."

Perhaps that's why Spinden attacked the uniform selection with such zeal, forming an in-house committee and traveling to a law enforcement conference to scout ideas. Or why, to reduce ongoing costs, he insisted on the best: top-rated fabric [wool-blend pants and shirts], double stitching, reinforced cuffs and elbows.

Color, though, stymied the committee. Perhaps Washington County should go the way of other local sheriff's departments and try green? Or the way of traditional police departments and try blue?

Months of chatter later, the committee had no decision. That's when Spinden stepped in and made the call. Actually his wife, Debbie, gave the final nod, deferring to years of shopping expertise.

"She said women look better in black than brown," the sheriff said.

Wreath agreed. "I definitely look like I've lost weight in the new uniform," she said.

And the new uniform fits better, she said. Her old shirt bagged, and stripes running down her trouser legs bulged at the hips because the pants had been tailored for a man.

"Now my pants fit perfect," she said.

Not that she's completely gleeful. As a drug education officer, Wreath's job takes her into classrooms, where she's often at the chalkboard. "The black pants show off everything," she said.

Already, Spinden said, the public has complimented his officers and their sharp new look. "It's been good for morale," he said.

And sheriff, he says with emphasis, is what he intends to remain. His dalliance with fabrics has spawned no fantasies of Calvin Klein fame.

"I thought this would be an easy thing," Spinden said with a chuckle. "But that hasn't been the case.

"Fashion is not my expertise."

Full story: Men [and women] in black, Ore.

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