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How 2 Retired Officers Are Helping Support Our Nation’s Heroes With Apparel

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How 2 Retired Officers Are Helping Support Our Nation’s Heroes With Apparel

stablished as a Thin Blue clothing line, Relentless Defender is a support platform for law enforcement personnel, offering top-quality apparel police and other first responders can wear with pride. “The brand has evolved over 10 years,” said Aaron Slater, CEO. “The apparel was initially for law enforcement professionals and supporters, but we started getting requests for different types of first responders, from firefighters to EMTs. Then, we branched into patriotic designs, shipping pieces nationwide and internationally. Lots of people all over the world love the American flag!”

Get ready to learn about the power of giving back with Relentless Defender, a brand that honors fallen heroes and uplifts communities through prolific t-shirt fundraisers.

An Inspired Beginning

Back in 2014, Aaron Slater and Danielle Delgado, a pair of married retired police officers who served for 22 years, were trying to round up the money to pay their property taxes. While serving in law enforcement, Slater learned to use social media to build relationships and co-created the Rosenberg Police Facebook page, the most-followed agency in the country – featured in People Magazine, Good Morning America, Fox News, and the Queen Latifah Show. When he left law enforcement, Slater started a training company and Facebook pages to promote it but needed help gaining the traction he wanted to see.

Aaron Slater and Dani Delgado

While weighing their options to make money, including going back into law enforcement, Slater decided to pray about his next step. “I said, ‘God, I give up. Show me what to do,’” Slater said. The following day, even though he didn’t know much about the apparel business, he created a t-shirt design with a sales link and posted it on his training company's Facebook pages. Within seven days, he had generated enough money to pay the property taxes.

“We made $2 more than what we owed,” said Delgado, general manager. That was the start of Relentless Defender Apparel.

This unique lifestyle brand also arose from a need for top-of-the-line apparel with eye-catching, soft-ink designs in a market flooded with subpar merchandise for first responders. In the face of adversity, including threats and hostility directed at officers, Relentless Defender embodies bold resilience, symbolizing the unyielding Thin Blue Line that safeguards communities from harm.

A Brand That Serves Those Who Serve

Along with Slater, a self-taught graphic artist, the brand has three talented artists who work together to create stand-out designs for the Relentless Defender brand and its myriad fundraising tees. “We’ve got all different styles, so we’re not an echo chamber,” Slater said.

Officers & dispatchers celebrate Dispatcher Appreciation Week w/ apparel from Relentless Defender

Many of the apparel line's designs pay tribute to all of the supporting roles that help law enforcement and first responders every day. One of the collections they have was created to celebrate dispatchers.

Relentless Defender prints many of its designs on Next Level Apparel tees and Independent Trading Co. hoodies.

“Customers are much more in tune and educated about shirt quality than five or 10 years ago. They love the quality, fit, and feel of these garments. We also wear the apparel first before it goes out to our customers. If we don’t want to wear it, they won’t either.”

The brand’s Hero Program is a relationship-building tool. “A customer who is a first responder or a military veteran can sign up and receive free shipping. We’re showing that we want to take care of those who are our essential employees as first responders and those who’ve served the country.”

The brand also has a screen-printing shop called Relentless Ink, staffed by first responders, military veterans, and formerly incarcerated individuals.

“Former law enforcement and military employees work alongside people convicted of crimes who get a second chance. It’s also a way to mend the bond of separation in the wider community, with first responders working alongside former felons.”
Aaron Slater, CEO at Relentless Ink

Since the lifestyle brand has a decorating arm, the team designs and imprints all of its artwork in-house. Slater and Delgado started the brand in their house and then moved into a 1,600-square-foot facility. After outsourcing his printing to another shop, he bought his first manual press, upgraded to an automatic after a month, and then moved into a 4,500-square-foot building.

Now, the company sprawls in a 13,000-square-foot space with six screen-printing presses and 17 embroidery heads. The shop also offers sublimation, DTG, DTF, and vinyl. “We keep investing in the company because our customers keep investing in us,” Slater said. “We’re putting out nearly 1 million units annually between Relentless Defender and our custom printing side.”

Patriotic Philanthropy in Action

After establishing Relentless Defender and offering custom decorating services to law enforcement agencies and other businesses, the team naturally branched into fundraising efforts. Recalling his first t-shirt sales, which allowed him to pay his property taxes, Slater wanted to give back using their business platform.

In 2016, after learning about the deaths of several Dallas police officers, Slater and Delgado took action. “I worked all night to create a t-shirt design that I launched at 5:30 am,” Slater said. “Then, it started blowing up. We raised $220,000, which we donated to the surviving family members. Ten days later, officers in Baton Rouge were killed, so we did the same thing.” Then, the team’s fundraising efforts started snowballing from there.

“Since 2016, we’ve had the honor of donating almost $2.3 million to surviving family members and other causes.” 
Aaron Slater, CEO at Relentless Ink

Now, Relentless Defender supports many families in need. “They find us,” said Delgado, whose father was killed in the line of duty three years ago. “We don’t start fundraisers for fallen offices now unless a law enforcement organization or family member contacts us.”

This Burnsville Fundraiser helped honor and support the families of Officer Paul Elmstrand, Officer Matthew Ruge, and firefighter-paramedic, Adam Finseth, who tragically lost their lives in February.

Learning about the team’s philanthropic effort isn’t hard for people. Slater and Delgado sit on nonprofit boards like the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund and Concerns of Police Survivors (C.O.P.S.) Local Chapters. “We’re just heavily involved in the whole niche,” Slater said. “When an officer has been killed in the line of duty, someone will reach out and ask us to make memorial t-shirts to help them raise funds for the family. We’ve never turned anyone down.”

The Fundraising Process

The process for every fundraiser is similar. After an agency loses an officer, they or the family contact Slater to kick off a fundraiser. “We create the design and get approval from the family,” he said. “Then we add the design to our site and share the link.” After that, Slater shared the call via his email and social media network. “The key is also in the agency and family sharing the link to generate awareness and support.”

Since the team almost always has a fundraiser running, they need to efficiently integrate that extra production and fulfillment into their regular workload.

“We print and ship most of our lifestyle brand shirts on-demand within 24 hours of receiving the order. We screen print most of our custom orders in bulk. For the fundraising t-shirts, we figure out costs for blank tees, labor, and shipping, then donate the rest (about half) of the proceeds to the family.”
Aaron Slater, CEO at Relentless Ink

Slater and Delgado also started their own nonprofit, Relentless Defender Foundation. “Part of our mission is to ‘humanize the badge’ and build bridges between the community and law enforcement to better relate with each other,” said Slater, also a former board member of Humanizing the Badge and an instructor for Public Agency Training Council, teaching the increasingly popular Community Oriented Policing & Social Media (COPSocial Media) class. “We raise funds for fallen and injured officers’ families and started a scholarship fund for young people who want to become cops.”

Face Challenges of Running Fundraisers

The Relentless Defender team runs into some common issues with fundraising:

1. Vetting the nonprofits or agencies you work with:

“Your name’s going to be associated with that group. As best you can, be sure they’re legit and the funds you’re raising go to the exact cause you’re supporting.”
Dani Delgado, General Manager at Relentless Ink

2. Navigating a board committee:

When working with a group of people, it can take them a lot of time to reach a consensus on a design or merch items. “Sometimes a nonprofit will ask for 16 different items,” Slater said. “You have to help them narrow down those choices right away.”

3. Creating a cost-effective design:

Delgado explains that some nonprofits request a 16-color design. “We have to narrow it down to a two-color design, and people will still want to wear it,” she said.

4. Encouraging them to market:

While Slater’s team will handle everything from A to Z, including designing the shirt, printing it, setting up the web store, and fulfilling orders, the nonprofit needs to jump in on marketing. “They’ve got to promote the fundraiser to their email lists and on their social media,” Slater said. “They often don’t do that, so we educate them on how when they market, we sell more, and they raise more money. The more you market, it’s a direct reflection on the amount of jobs and income you bring in.”

5. Being clear on your model and deadlines:

Slater recommends keeping the fundraising link open for a week or two to take preorders. Then, close the link and print and ship all the ordered shirts. “You save yourself a lot of headaches by having the exact quantities and sizes to print. You never overprint and lose money.”

6. Understanding and tweaking your production:

A process unique to every shop, Slater explains it’s essential to understand how long it takes you to print a shirt. “You can be over-equipped with your decorating machines and understaffed or be under-equipped and overstaffed. You’re either scrambling to get work out the door or to find work to print. There’s a balance you have to achieve through constant tweaking. It’s one of the hardest things running a shop because there are seasons in the print world.”

Start Getting More Involved in Your Community

Slater says the opportunities are endless if your print shop wants to get more involved by supporting local first responders and veterans. “There’s never a shortage of need for supporting your community. Everyone – including first responders, schools, churches, organizations, and businesses – relies on branding and merch. You can help by offering that support. Then, you’ll earn new referral business from your charitable work.”

Relentless Defender hosts a local community event

One way to find these opportunities is to look for events that need sponsors, like a school car wash fundraiser. “Try to look at each event as a win-win,” Slater said. “If the organization and your print shop benefit, then get involved. You need to look out for where you get taken advantage of and draw a line.”

The Relentless Defender team also builds a sense of community by inviting customers and other local business owners to open houses several times a month.

“We have a bar, and it’s a fun gathering where we help them create logos. When we show them what we do, they leave as lifelong customers and brand ambassadors who spread the word about our services. Marketing isn’t just the money you spend on Google ads – it’s the relationship you build with the community. You’re not just a business in the community but a business with the community.”
Aaron Slater, CEO at Relentless Ink

Delgado points out that they have such a stable of repeat clients because of the relationships they’ve built. “We know them and talk to them,” she says. They have our personal cell phone numbers. They’re never a number when they walk in the door.”

May 19, 2024