How Should Police Present Themselves?

THE MATTER OF HOW POLICE SHOULD LOOK AND ACT ARE IMPORTANT ISSUES FOR EVERY FREE SOCIETY TO CONSIDER.

Since the early days of policing in the mid-nineteenth century, reformers like Sir Robert Peel thought police ought to be a separate function from the military; moreover, they ought not to look nor act like soldiers. Their mission is quite different. (Though we do see some characteristic actions of community oriented policing used by the military in Iraq and Afghanistan.) Simply stated, police should not look (or act) like soldiers except in very limited tactical operations.

Having served for four years as an active duty Marine, I knew that when I went into policing it wasn’t to continue being a Marine.

In my book, Arrested Development, I wrote the following about my tenure as the chief in Burnsville, Minn. and my effort to “de-militarize” my police officers:

In Burnsville, I was feeling the emotional effects of the civil rights and antiwar protests that I directly experienced in Minneapolis and when I was on campus. I knew I was in a time of major social upheaval…

The kind of police we needed were police with formal educations—they would be the most likely to be open to what I was trying to do; they would be the most flexible. A higher educational requirement seemed to be the first and finest step toward getting my department to where I wanted it. In Burnsville, police were to be highly-educated before they started to practice. With the support of [City Manager] Patrick McInnis and the city council, I established a four-year college degree requirement. Today, Burnsville still maintains the four-year degree entrance requirement we established in early 1969. They are one of the few departments in the nation to do so.

Right away, any person could tell the police in Burnsville were different. We did away with traditional military-style uniforms. Instead, we wore navy-blue blazers, French-blue trousers, and name tags declaring: Public Safety Officer. Our patrol vehicles were white with gold reflective tape along the sides. Our unique approach received national attention in Newsweek magazine which noted:

“From Clancy Cop, circa 1890, to gray jumpsuits in Menlo Park and blue blazers in Burnsville: Policemen are becoming respectable, just like doctors, schoolteachers and the corner druggist.”

It was a sign of things to come. A preferred future, I thought, for police. In that same article, I was quoted:

“If we change our dress and titles, maybe we’ll get some changes in behavior from both the officers and the community.”

It turned out to be true. Burnsville officers immediately noticed a change in attitude from the people they contacted while wearing their blue blazers. The city was proud of their officers.

Since that time, few police departments in cities or on campuses have been able to get away from the military-style police uniform. Instead, there has been a drift toward looking more like the military by authorizing the wearing of BDUs — “battle dress uniforms.” This has primarily occurred since September 11, 2001.

While non-military uniforms seemed like a good idea I never found any research that actively supported them. That is until I found this article by Karl Bickel.

The traditional military-style police uniform.
The traditional military-style police uniform.
bdu 1
An example of BDUs — Battle Dress Uniforms worn by many of today,s police. From hhaanshalbbeerstadt.photodeck.com

“Are BDUs compatible with the goals of community policing? The name itself—‘battle dress uniform’ or ‘battle dress utilities’ (BDU)—seems antithetical to the philosophy of community policing. All across the United States and over to the United Kingdom (UK) we are seeing a growing trend toward adoption of the BDU-style uniform for daily use by patrol personnel. This poses the question; does this warrior look have an adverse impact on the relationship development and partnership building that is inherent in community policing? Critics have cautioned that a more militarized look may have a negative impact on both public perception and how officers view their role…

“Some departments have seen resistance from the public to the move toward dark colored BDUs for daily wear by their patrol force. After changing from a more traditional uniform of tunic, matching trousers, white shirt and black tie to an operational ‘American SWAT’ type uniform during 2004 and 2005, the North Wales police in the UK saw pressure in 2010 to return to the traditional look. A survey found some citizens had less confidence in the ‘professionalism and honesty’ of the officers patrolling in what has been referred to as the American SWAT type of uniform… The Spokane Washington police department has also been urged to move away from what has been characterized as a black jumpsuit that looks much like BDUs in order to rebuild trust in the community. A city councilman who is also a former police officer is at the forefront of the movement for change. He believes the ‘militaristic black jumpsuit’ may be a contributing factor to the dwindling public trust. 

“In the spring of 2009 a group of students, law enforcement professionals, in Johns Hopkins University’s Public Safety Leadership Program did a project on Public Perception toward Police Uniforms for their Research and Evaluation class. As a class project it was somewhat limited in scope but none-the-less produced results that were quite interesting. They found that, regarding the BDU uniform, chiefs based their opinions “solely on their assumptions and not on evidentiary research.” Using surveys of the public in which a photo lineup depicted officers in a traditional class ‘B’ uniform and BDUs, it was discovered that the traditional class ‘B’ uniform was preferred over the BDUs

An example of a non-military or blazer-style police uniform which was worn in Burnsville, Minn. as the primary uniform (1969-72) and in Madison, Wisc. as an alternative uniform (1973-93).

. The results showed that the respondents believed the officers in the class ‘B’ uniform were more approachable and they preferred to have this officer respond to their call for service rather than the officer in the BDUs. 

“The more militaristic look of the BDUs, much like what is seen in news stories of our military in war zones, gives rise to the notion of our police being an occupying force in some inner city neighborhoods, instead of trusted community protectors…”

The issue of how police present themselves regarding their image is an important one and should not be allowed to drift away.

In Madison, I authorized the wearing of a  “blazer style” non-military uniform soon after I arrived from Burnsville in the early 70s. To me and the community, it made a difference. Soon our citizens were beginning to perceive their police officers as more professional. Of course, it was more than just looks — it also had to do with how we were behaving; that is, acting like professionals.

Burnsville Public Safety Officer Paul Linnee, circa 1970.
Burnsville Public Safety Officer Paul Linnee, circa 1970.

With regard to today’s policing, the blazer-style uniform should always be an option and, in some instances, mandatory.