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Cops Gear Up for the Future

The Capitol Police are weighing in on the Army’s development of a high-tech civilian combat uniform that could revolutionize the way officers respond to chemical and biological attacks on Congress.

If all goes well, the next president’s first State of the Union address might be protected by a force straight out of “Mission: Impossible.”

A revamped prototype unveiled recently by the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center utilizes cutting-edge elements of the military’s “Future Force Warrior” combat ensemble adjusted to suit the special needs of civilian police officers who have to perform tough tactical maneuvers that include facing down threats from hazardous substances.

Tough as nails yet sleek and flexible, the body armor hypothetically could be equipped with everything from a compact chemical-biological protection suit tucked into a pouch above the officer’s waist that can be unrolled and worn in seconds, to a modular, computerized helmet complete with a global positioning system and radio antenna suite.

At least that’s the hope.

National Protection Center Director Rita Gonzalez admitted that Project LEAP, short for Law Enforcement Advanced Protection, still has a long way to go. And she should know: The National Protection Center is responsible for taking the technology developed by the Army and making sure it transitions well to first responders like the Capitol Police.

But Gonzalez seemed optimistic that a critical component in the development of LEAP — establishing standards for hazardous materials suit components — can be achieved within one and a half to two years.

“Project LEAP is assisting the Department of Homeland Security and the National Institute of Justice in doing an assessment of standards related to chemical and biological protection,” Gonzalez explained.

That’s where first responders like the Capitol Police, the Mount Weather Police Department in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains and the Massachusetts State Police enter the picture.

Gonzalez said that this spring Capitol Hill officers will be “donning all their equipment with their systems on to assess what’s missing” among the HAZMAT gear. Their evaluations will be critical to the development of standards, which in turn will facilitate emergency responders’ ability to access grants to procure such equipment.

After that, the next phase of LEAP would involve the development of ballistic-related protection and load-bearing requirements, as well as electronics and other integrated components.

If all goes well, Gonzalez said she could reasonably expect LEAP, or components of the combat gear, to become available to civilian agencies in about two years.

Like the Future Force Warrior, the envisioned LEAP suit features “stand-off body armor playing front and rear in a quick don and doff load-carriage vest” — a design that reduces the need for soft armor and lessens shrapnel damage by providing more space for bullet deformation.

The gear is the brainchild of Natick, Mass.-based U.S. Army Soldiers Systems, which specializes in the creation of everything from food and clothing to shelters and airdrop systems for military troops.

Jerry Whitaker, a spokesman for the Army research center, predicted that the future will hold even more technological advances for protective forces.

“We’re looking at what would make our soldiers more stealthy — actually make them invisible — kind of like in the movie ‘Predator,’” Whitaker said, though he conceded that invisible operations reminiscent of popular science fiction movies are still a few years down the road.

Army researchers are also working on other superhero-like systems that would allow soldiers and law enforcement officers to see through the eyes of other team members, communicate with one another in mere whispers and check their own physiological status on computer screens contained in drop-down visors inside the helmets.

Whitaker said getting the input of actual first responders, such as the Capitol Police, is critical in the development phase of the project.

“It’s important to make sure we have those customers involved from the start so we’re correctly identifying what their needs are,” Whitaker said.

That’s because what works well for a soldier in the field may not work as well at, say, political events.

For instance, as NPC Project Manager Jonathan Rich noted in an Army press release on LEAP, the uniform’s nonpermeable pant leg might generate a good deal of heat. While such heat wouldn’t matter in a 20-minute mission, it might create generally more discomfort for an officer who spends several hours guarding a political convention or State of the Union address.

A spokeswoman for the Capitol Police said no information on the department’s participation is available; however, she noted that LEAP equipment would likely be put into use by one of the agency’s specialty divisions, such as its Hazardous Materials Response Team.

Similarly, Massachusetts State Police Lt. Sharon Costine said the uniforms will be tested by an officer in the agency’s tactical operations division.

“They wear it, see how it feels, then give feedback,” said Costine, a police spokeswoman. Although the department has yet to receive a full LEAP uniform, Costine said, it is already testing pieces of a prototype.

The Mount Weather department, which is also slated to participate in the program according to military officials, is a private agency under the Federal Emergency Management Agency which serves the Mount Weather Emergency Assistance Center. (The center, about 45 miles west of the nation’s capital, is home to a FEMA training center, as well as a massive underground continuity-of-government facility.)

Lawmakers and police will probably get their own firsthand look at the new technology later this year when the Army holds its annual “Soldier Modernization” show on Capitol Hill to display the latest innovations it has developed for soldiers and police officers.

Jennifer Yachnin contributed to this report.

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