A History of Police Uniforms—and Why They Matter

Uniforms have influenced interactions between cops and citizens since the start of American policing.

Image
Reuters/Mario Anzuoni

The paramilitarisitic uniforms and gear of the St. Louis County Police Department have made headlines as clashes between police and protestors in Ferguson, Missouri, continue. Parallels have been drawn between the influx of heavy, military-style gear into suburban police departments and the starkly adversarial relationship between black residents in Ferguson and the majority-white police forces there. 

Police uniforms have come under similar scrutiny during other times of civil unrest in the U.S. As Norman Stamper, Seattle’s chief of police during the 1999 protests against a World Trade Organization meeting there, told Vox, allowing his officers to dress in full body army and gas masks that made them look "like ninjas" was "an act of provocation," a decision he called the "worst mistake of my career." Keeping officers in their standard uniforms, he explained, would have been "a huge step in the right direction towards de-escalation."

Indeed, the history of police uniforms is an illustrative tale of the history of American policing. What we've asked—and allowed—police officers to wear throughout history has influenced what we've expected of them, how we feel about them, and how they feel about themselves. 

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What we now think of as the “standard” American police uniform is itself an artifact of war—the Civil War. In many departments, including the Los Angeles Police Department, early law-enforcement duds were actually surplus uniforms from the Union Army.

New York City Metropolitan police in uniform, drawn July 1871 (Wikimedia Commons)

Over the next 50 or so years, police departments of the pre-World-War-I era pivoted toward public services to their local communities. Hyperlocal relationships grew up between police departments, citizens and politicians, according criminologist Sergio Herzog. However, this sometimes also fostered hyperlocal corruption. 

The antidote, many felt, was professionalization. U.S. police departments moved towards militarization in an attempt to transform the police into an effective and corruption-free workforce. As Herzog wrote in a 2001 article in Policing and Society: An International Journal of Research and Policy:

According to the newly defined "professional" police goals, law enforcement became the exclusive and main specialization area of the police, to be formulated in terms of the intentionally quasi-military metaphor, "war against crime" (rather than a campaign or a struggle against it) by aggressive military means. The new image of the police was characterized by operational and technological sophistication, independence from external and political intervention, tight discipline according to a clear hierarchical scale of powers, obedience to orders and directive, internal control of police activities, and structural division into highly-specialized units. 

Below is a member of the White House Police Force (now the Secret Service) in 1938. His uniform is very similar to soldiers' uniforms of the day. 

(Wikimedia Commons)

For comparison, here's then-Major General C.L. Chennault of the Air Force (right) visiting with Chiang Kai-shek in 1945:

(AP)

And here's a Florida Highway Patrol Officer around 1950, with a uniform similar to what U.S. soldiers and commanders wore in the Pacific theater just a few years earlier. 

(Flickr/Florida Keys Public Libraries)

But policing—and police attire—began to change dramatically in the 1960s. As images of the Kent State shootings and civil rights movement-era abuses flickered across Americans' television screens, departments began to question their own tactics—and their uniforms. The implementation of rigid, military-style policies had not, it turned out, cut down on crime, as murder, rape, and robbery rates steadily rose throughout the 1960s and 70s. They had also led to serious deterioration of relationships between police departments and the communities they were meant to serve. 

Ohio National Guard moves in on rioting students at Kent State University in May, 1970. (AP)

In Burnsville, Wisconsin, Chief of Police David Couper decided to experiment. In the early 1970s, he authorized his special operations units to wear a new kind of uniform, consisting of navy-blue blazers, blue trousers, and clearly written name tags. The cops sort of looked like flight attendants, but that was the point: The dress was part of Couper's larger effort to professionalize his force, and to attract more college-educated officers to Burnsville. 

Burnsville Public Safety Officer
Paul Linnee, circa 1970
(courtesy David Couper)

"The professional dress, with the blazer—[the Burnsville police] didn’t look like the police in the cities where they had problems," Couper says. "It made the officers feel like professionals. They saw our recruiting posters on campus: 'Join the Other Peace Corps.'"

Couper, who soon headed up the force in nearby Madison and implemented his ideas in a larger city, encouraged officers to remove their hats while on walking on the beat, even at night. And he asked that they refrain from wearing those iconic reflective aviator sunglasses while making traffic stops. "Take the glasses off, make eye contact, make sure they know you’re a human being," he told his force. In Madison in the mid-1970s, while patrolling a crowded event that had become violent in the previous year, Couper's officers went without their hats, walked by themselves rather than in large groups, and were instructed to greet every four or so pedestrians. That year, there were no problems, Couper recalls. 

Other police departments took similar steps. In 1969, Menlo Park, California, police traded in their navy blue uniforms for forest green blazers worn over black slacks, white shirts and ties. After wearing the new uniforms for 18 months, the officers exhibited fewer "authoritarian characteristics" on psychological tests, criminologist Richard Johnson wrote in a 2012 study. And after wearing the uniforms for a year, assaults on police officers dropped by 30 percent. Injuries to civilians by police dropped 50 percent. It appeared that the officers' dress had deeply affected their jobs and their communities. According to Johnson, the Menlo Park experiment inspired over 400 other departments to experiment with the blazers. 

For Menlo Park, however, the change was a step too far. By 1977, the department had determined that the blazers did not command enough respect. Eighteen months into the blazer trial, officers discovered, assaults on police officers began to rise steadily, until they were double the amount of the year before. After switching back to more official-style police blues, the assault rates dropped again.

In New York, too, administrators experimented with softer, kinder uniforms. In the 1980s, NYPD officers wore baseball caps, adopted "to look more user friendly," as the New York Times wrote in 1994. But a few years later, the caps were dropped "because they were deemed to add an unprofessional air to policing." By the 1990s, a uniform backlash was under way. “The uniform provides a shield,” Michael Solomon, a psychologist and marketing specialist at Rutgers University, told the Times in 1994. "I think it's a backlash to the touchy-feely approach that drove many departments to make themselves less intimidating. Now it's swinging back the other way because there is the feeling it didn't work."

New York police officers in riot gear during the 1991 violence that followed the death of a black child in the Hasidic Jewish neighborhood of Crown Heights, Brooklyn.  (AP Photo/David Burns)

The scales tipped hard after September 11, 2001. The large-scale militarization of the American police force in the years following the terror attacks on New York and Washington. D.C., wasn't a mistake: It was public policy. According to the American Civil Liberties Union report (pdf) on militarization released this June, the Edward R. Byrne Justice Assistance Grant allowed state and local agencies to "purchase hundreds of lethal and less-lethal weapons, tactical vests, and body armor" in 2012 and 2013 alone. That’s why police departments like the one in Ferguson over these last weeks have armored vehicles, night-vision goggles—and camouflage pants. 

Research suggests that soldier-like clothing can truly affect the way police carry out their jobs. As criminologists John Paul and Michael Birzer pointed out in a 2004 paper, training and outfitting police as soldiers can pervert law enforcement's raison d’être. "Soldiers at war operate under a code of domination, not service," they write. "… When police organizations look and act like soldiers, a military mindset is created that declares war on the American public. In this mentality, the American streets become the 'front' and American citizens exist as 'enemy combatants.'"

Former Wisconsin Chief of Police David Couper puts it more simply. “When you put that [bullet-proof] vest on, it changes things,” he says. “You think, ‘My gosh—there are people out there trying to hurt me. But there are not a lot of people out there trying to hurt you. And if there are people who want to hurt you, they can.” 

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Beyond the military gear, even modern American police departments' day-to-day uniforms reflect a new approach to law and order. A number of departments have tended towards all-black uniforms, for instance. 

A Los Angeles Police Department officer participates in the 2012 NHL Stanley Cup Champions Los Angeles Kings Victory Parade. (Flickr/Prayitno)
New York City Police Department officers, 2013. (Flickr/torbakhopper)

A 2008 study by criminologist Ernest Nickels asked 150 undergraduate students to evaluate police officers based on their uniform colors. Surprisingly, the students largely favored the officers dressed in all black. Perhaps, Nickels hypothesized, their preference had something to do with their desire to be protected. He wrote:

In countries such as the USA, awash in procedural cop dramas and reality programming about policing on television, popular culture would seem to hold a certain infatuation with the crime-fighter mystique. This elevation in status for the police would seem to coincide with the transformation of the West toward a culture of control. The cultural shift toward values of safety and order over liberty and justice seems to give the police new resonance as symbols of the emergent moral order. A civic religion based upon rule of law might find its temple in the courthouse; one devoted to law and order would tend to find it instead in the police station.

These days, perhaps the majority of Americans want our police forces in the color in which we dress our judges, our clergy, and our avenging superheroes: black. 

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Back in Ferguson, the Highway State Patrol took over policing duties late last week. Many expressed relief that the officers—and particularly their African-American captain, Ron Johnson—wore very different uniforms than their county-police predecessors, indicating some hope for improved police-community relations.

Couper noticed something different. "I saw what Ron Johnson was wearing," he says, "and I thought, 'He isn’t wearing his hat.'"

 

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