A cop's guide to the supplies you will want on patrol
While there is no one way to do the job, this is a list of basics for every cop on the street
By Mike Thiac
I spent years training new officers as a field training officer. A question I was often asked was, "What equipment do I really need on the street?" I’ve usually answered that there is no one way to do this job and the equipment needed varies. I’ve also suggested that as new cops see other cops working, that they should adopt what works for them. Good ideas are best shared.
That being said, here is a list of some basics for every cop on the street. This is a list organized by the "must-haves" (don’t go out without them), the "should-haves (not war-stoppers, but highly recommended) and the "good-to-haves" (not necessarily needed, but they make life easier), in no particular order. Is it complete? Not really. Everyone has a different situation, but here are some requirements and suggestions.
Must-have for every cop
Uniform: Clean, with insignia (badge and nameplate). Look like a professional.
Primary duty weapon: Cleaned, loaded with operable ammunition. Ammunition is cheap, your life is not. Replace your daily load regularly (like every year during your birth month). The odds are you will never fire your weapon outside the range, but a firearm is like blood or a parachute. You don't need it unless you need it badly.
Comfortable shoes/boots: You will be in them all day and your feet will start to hurt if mistreated. I suggest at least two pairs so you can rotate them.
Body armor: Wear it, end of discussion. Why anyone would not wear it is beyond me. If you will interact with the public, be prepared that some of the public will not like you, even if you’re working at the station desk. More than a few front desk officers have been in a firefight. A friend suggested investing in a ceramic trauma plate to cover your chest. It replaces the Kevlar trauma plate, but they are rated to stop shotgun shells and rifle bullets over a critical area.
Radio: Have faith, your police computer will fail, or you will be chasing a suspect and you will need to call out locations. Charge your battery before each shift.
Flashlight and a backup: Being able to see in the dark is critical. The bad guys are out there and they will see you. Make sure you see them.
Baton/Mace/CED: Intermediate weapons as allowed by your agency. Give yourself more options other than command presence, verbal orders, physical force and deadly force.
Personal affairs in order: Congratulations, you are in a profession where death or serious bodily injury is a distinct possibility. Is your family ready? Have you set up a will, living will, medical power of attorney and final directives? Does your family know where they are? Even if you're single, you need to plan for the worst because someone may have to make decisions for you.
If you're a single parent, or both you and your spouse are cops, have you planned for your children if something should happen? If the answer is "Mom and dad will take care of the kids," do mom and dad know that? Have you discussed this with them? Do they have (or are able to obtain) your kids’ medical and education records? Have you given them a power of attorney for this matter? Have you planned for switching schools, or if you are in a hospital for long-term recovery, will one parent move into your house?
Questions like this should be answered before you get on the streets. LegalZoom offers online services and many police unions or agencies offer assistance in this. Also, if you have a "change of life" such as divorce, marriage or birth of a child, make sure things like insurance policies and pension benefits are updated.
Should-have for every cop
Back-up weapon: Assume you need to use deadly force and for whatever reason, you cannot use your primary weapon (e.g. your strong arm is injured or your firearm has a mechanical failure), what do you do? A backup weapon can be a lifesaver.
I suggest you orient it to your weak hand (for most of us, the left) so if your strong hand is injured, you still have a plausible threat of deadly force against your target. I recommend something small without an exposed hammer (have faith, it will catch on something when you desperately need it) so you can get it out easily.
Personally, I carry a snub-nose .357 Ruger LCR in my left cargo pocket. No exposed hammer, no parts to jam. I yank the trigger, it will fire. Even if you don't hit your target, you may scare the person enough that he or she runs or you can back off and reassess. Again, whatever works for you.
Long weapon: A shotgun or rifle – some type of longer-range weapon. I carry a Remington 870 and an AR-15. It's a fact there are people out there with more lethal weapons, and the threat has changed with the active shooter being a plausible situation. You need something with a more effective range than a pistol. And in certain situations, the intimidation factor may help you avoid a conflict. Is there a more intimidating sound than a shotgun being racked?
Extra ammo: Ammo is cheap, life is not. Extra rounds for anything you carry, preferably in a magazine so it's quick to reload.
Water: Back in my college Army ROTC days, a wise master sergeant made a point that stuck with me. If you are in a long firefight (for police, see hostage situation, active shooter or barricaded suspect) you need two things to survive: water and ammunition.
A few bottles of H2O can be a godsend in the middle of a hot summer day while you’re manning a post. For a few dollars, you can put a case of water in your patrol vehicle and you're set. It may be warm but at least you're hydrated. And your buddies who didn't think of this will like the fact someone brought the water!
Long handcuff key: The small key that comes with the set is good as a backup, but a long one will make it much easier to double lock or unlock handcuffs.
Medical info card: Prepare for the worst, you're going down. Type up a medical information card and put it where it's easy to find such as in your wallet or behind the trauma plate on your body armor. Don't think, "This is personal." If a medic is looking at this you are hurting and they will need to know personal information. What to put on it? Your info (name, DOB, phone number), blood type, medical conditions (e.g., diabetes, asthma, high blood pressure), medications you take (even your vitamins; the doc needs to know), names and contact information of your doctor, and some emergency contacts (name, address and phone number). Assume you will not be in any condition to answer medical questions. That may save your life.
Leg restraints/hobble: Assuming your agency allows this, have it available. When a suspect starts kicking even though he's handcuffed, you still have to secure/transport him. You may have them at the station, but the sooner he's restrained the better.
Extra handcuffs: Assume you will have more than one suspect, or a very large one that needs a few cuffs. They are not that expensive and most companies give you a lifetime warranty: They break, they exchange them.
Change of underwear/uniform/shower stuff: If you are stuck at the station for a very long shift (emergency, natural disaster, etc.), your uniform will get icky. A shower and just a change of underwear and socks will make you feel much better. If you can spare a uniform, keep a backup in your locker or car.
Phone/fax numbers for every office and emails you will need: This should include your station, the investigative branches you deal with, the DA and any courts you will deal with. Have them on your smartphone. Make sure they are the phone numbers that get picked up, not the ones with voicemail.
Required forms and a file to carry them in: This includes booking forms, vehicle tow slips and evidence submission forms. Waiting on forms or filling them out later only delays getting your job done. Have your paperwork ready.
Gloves: Nitrile exam gloves like EMTs and paramedics wear. You don't want to be exposed to a suspect's bodily fluid and dirt.
Medical kit (tourniquet, blood stoppage): Given the lessons from the Boston Marathon bombing and other mass casualty incidents, you should have a tourniquet and know how to use it. When someone can use a rice cooker to make a bomb, bleeding out is very possible.
Being able to stop blood loss is critical, even in a large city with ambulance support minutes away. What happens in a rural sheriff's office where you have a deputy 30 miles from medical support? Be prepared! Amazon.com sells the North American Rescue Military Issue Combat Application Tourniquet for around $30. How much is your life worth?
More than one pen: Sounds amateurish, but I've had to explain to more than one officer (including senior officers) that they need a backup pen. Count on it, as when you desperately need to write something down, your pen will fail. Personally I carry three in case someone stole (excuse me, borrowed) my second.
Note pads: A major part of what we do is writing, field notes, complainant's statements, etc. You’re going to need something to write on. Be ready, have your memo and a small pad in a pocket next to more than one pen!
Wristwatch: Younger people are often not using a wristwatch for various reasons (I have a phone, I don't like the mark it puts on my wrist). Cops aren’t normal young people. You need to know the time, so have a wristwatch.
Hand sanitizer: We generally don’t deal with clean people and work like this is dirty. Mike Rowe, you’ve cleaned a sewer, but have you handled a homeless, mentally unstable person who hasn’t taken a shower since the Bush administration or a two-week-old dead body? Get something that kills germs and use it.
Map of your area: Again, have faith in technology. Have faith it will fail when you need it. Get a Rand McNally (rookies, ask the old dudes about it) or something similar and have it ready.
A thumb drive: Old dudes, ask the rookies about it. It can hold documents, video of crimes, digital forms, etc. Police work has moved into the 21st century, gotta go with it.
Your supervisor's phone number/email: No matter if you’re an officer, sergeant, or chief, you need to be able to contact your boss. At the first meeting with my squad, I sent them a text message with my name, unit number, cell and home number. I’d rather they ask me a question on my time off than have to write letters explaining a mistake later. Also, bad news only gets worse with time.
Clipboard of some type: A simple wooden one (less than a buck at Wal-Mart) or metal one that can hold forms; you need something to write on. It also doubles as something you can paste cheat sheets to (checklist for DWI, drug cases, etc.).
Narcotics testing supplies: It can help determine if the suspect you are dealing with got "robbed" by his dealer when his cocaine turned out to be sugar.
Good to have
Camera: Photos are great and it’s nice that your iPhone can take them, but thanks to some court rulings, the defense may be able to take your phone. So pick up a cheap digital camera for work. You can get a decent camera from Amazon.com for less than $50 with over 10 megapixels (old dudes, ask the rooks to explain megapixels) for good clarity. Don’t forget a case for it and an adapter for the memory chip to go into a USB port.
Fingerprint kit: Very old school, but prints are great evidence and they can be easy to take. Most agencies will issue an officer the basics (brush, tape, dust) and go from there. Again, not something you do on every case, but for the more serious cases (aggravated assault) it can make the difference.
Cheatsheets: Some officers are more attuned to certain things than others. Some officers are proficient at narcotics investigations or DWIs, they can handle all procedures from memory. If you are not that proficient, a quick checklist can really make an unfamiliar call go faster.
Spreadsheets for tax-deductible stuff: Rookies, get in the habit of filing the long form on TurboTax (or with your accountant). But it’s good to set up a spreadsheet of annual expenses for work (e.g. ammo, weapons, range cost, mileage to authorized extra jobs or training at the range). Like many professions, you will be "self-funding" for a lot of your equipment and other costs. You may be able to get some of that back on your tax bill, but have the documentation ready when the IRS comes calling with a word that strikes fear into the heart of any tax-paying citizen: "audit."
Disinfectant spray for back seats: Again, you’re not dealing with the cleanest people on earth and you will be amazed at how far the smell travels up wind from the back seat to the front seat, even at 60 mph with the windows open. Lysol or something similar can help (don’t forget to list it on your spreadsheet).
Plastic bags for suspect's items: A good way to know a suspect doesn’t have anything on him is to take it out of his hands and pockets. However, you have to put it somewhere. A cheap Ziploc bag can hold everything and you can just hand it off to the jailer as you book him.
Paper bags and rubber bands for suspects involved in shootings: A shooting suspect will need his hands swabbed for gunpowder residue. Keep them covered with paper bags (large lunch bags). Do not use plastic bags – paper reduces sweating and allows testing.
Paper clips to test drugs: When you test cocaine, it’s easier to dip the end of a paper clip into the testing liquid and touch it to the sample.
Pre-formatted reports for repeated calls: Every station will have a place that calls multiple times a week, such as a grocery store with the shoplifter, etc. A lot of the reports will be the same, so why reinvent the wheel. Just have the basic data saved on a Word file, copy and paste, and then make the updates (e.g. the date and time) needed.
Masks for spitters: Not often, but on occasion you have a spitter. A simple mask like they wear in the emergency department is a useful spit blocker.
Pocket knife/multifunctional tool: The Leatherman was the original multifunctional tool, but there are countless pocket knives. Being able to cut something is critical at times, and a tool that cuts wires can also be of great help.
Tablet with a map program: While many police cars have computers with map programs, a tablet (iPad, Surface) can be very useful. If you are serving a warrant or planning officer deployment around a disturbance, having a map of the area will allow you good situational awareness of your manpower.
Blank CDs: Often data needs to be tagged into evidence. Blank CDs are inexpensive and you can download a large amount of data and tag it for later investigation/court.
Binoculars: Being able to see at a greater distance than your normal eyes can be a great help if you are searching for a suspect, a lost child, etc.
Pain reliever, eye drops, cold medicine, etc.: Working nights or evenings, in hazardous conditions (floods, etc.) is part of the job. When everyone is home because of the weather, cops, firefighters and EMTs are working (yes, you are the essential employees – you don’t get flood/snow days) and, you will get headaches, colds, etc. Have something to help you when you’re on the job. Keep aspirin, eye drops, and cold medication in your locker or duty bag.
Digital audio recorder: Again, don’t use your smartphone but allow someone to talk into a digital recorder and download it and tag it. Digital recorders can be picked up for less than $20. Remember you just need a basic recorder, not something for a concert. Nothing will incriminate a defendant more than their own words.
This is not intended as an exhaustive list. Adapt it to how you work on the street. Remember you don’t have to buy everything at once. Observe how others do the job and use their knowledge and experience to ensure you accomplish your greatest goal: Go home at the end of the watch.
About the author
Michael A. Thiac is a Houston Police patrol sergeant and field training supervisor with over 18 years of experience. He is retired from the Army Reserve, after spending 23 years in intelligence. When not on patrol, he can be found at A Cop’s Watch.
Author's note: The statements, opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed herein are solely those of the author and not in any official capacity as an employee of the Houston Police Department and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoints or official policies of the Houston Police Department.
This article, originally published 06/05/2017, has been updated.