You’re strolling down a street in a large American city and you see two cops walking toward you. What’s your gut reaction? Concern? Apprehension? Worry, fear? Certain mental buttons are immediately pressed. Perhaps you tense up a bit.
Why should this be? Unless you’re an occasional criminal, have a record or are violating your parole, you shouldn’t need to have any of these reactions.
I think it has to do with the uniform, and not the profession. Solid dark colors, lots of complex tech gear, visible military-style rank on sleeves and collars, glossy-brimmed or Smokey-Bear hat: none of this speaks to reassurance, which is what you should feel, unless you’re one of the aforementioned malefactors.
The first police uniforms in England appeared in London in 1829. In the US it was 1854, where the initial outfits were surplus Civil War uniforms. So the militarization of the police, at least in this country, goes back a long way. But it took quite a while to reach the state it’s in today, where police often come equipped with radios, assorted “non-lethal” weaponry such as sprays and Tasers (more departments should make use of the bola), shields, extra ammo, helmets, goggles, heavy weaponry, and for all I know the occasional small thermonuclear device.
It’s not that police departments necessarily want these goods. Much of it, such as the occasional MRAP you see in SWAT and hostage situations, has been foisted on them by the military, who are delighted to have a way to dispose of surplus equipment. Disposing of surplus equipment allows the military to buy shiny new equipment, which surprisingly rapidly becomes surplus equipment, which permits the purchase of shiny new ….
And so on.
None of this expensive materiel, which we all pay for, does any good when human capital, training and decision-making are lacking. A recent example: Uvalde. All that gear couldn’t take down one teenager, because the mental capability didn’t match the metal. The military equipment to intimidate was there, nonetheless it did no good.
Why? Why does every police force have to look like a spinoff of the Marines? Why does every two-bit captain in a three-officer town feel the need to have four stars on his collar, as if he’s some domestic reincarnation of Patton? How does it improve community safety and security when everyone who encounters a cop thinks he or she has been transported to a war zone?
We here in Prescott ought to know about that. Our early sheriffs and constables somehow managed to carry out their duties wearing regular clothes. Virgil Earp didn’t wear an army uniform. Neither did Bucky O’Neill, until he was actually in the army. And I personally prefer the term ‘peace officers.’
So consider for a moment. What would be a happy medium here, between a casually dressed Earp and someone equipped to take out a small Latin American country? Could some of the tech be dispensed with, or left in a vehicle? What about just blue clothes instead of an actual uniform? Could the headgear be changed? Is that even necessary, or is it more cumbersome to the officer than useful? (How many perps are taken down with a hat?)
A badge was enough to identify a sheriff in the old days. Is a full military-style uniform really necessary? Wouldn’t officers themselves prefer something more casual and comfortable? Bicycle police patrol in shorts and bike helmets. How many people find those outfits less intimidating, and so prove more open, responsive, and cooperative? One can’t wear shorts in Montana in winter, of course, but wouldn’t a plain non-uniform coat work just fine, with a badge prominent? Come to think of it, that’s what they do wear in the north in winter, and it’s guaranteed less threatening than the blue uniform. Can’t someone come up with a temperate-climate replacement?
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 19,310 people are employed as fashion designers in the US. In a competition, surely a few could come up with designs for more practical and less intimidating attire for police to wear while on duty. Police gear changes all the time. For years now I’ve been advocating for the Prescott PD to get a Tesla or two. More and more departments around the world are opting for electric vehicles, for multiple reasons. While we’re busy redoing the patrol car, can’t we also consider redoing the clothes for its occupants?
In the 21st century a military-style uniform just pushes people’s buttons. How about we adopt something that doesn’t cause citizens to stress out at the very sight of it? It should be easy enough to test, and I’d love to see the results. As long as we’re at it, let the beat cops wear comfortable running shoes.
Even if they’re dark blue.
Prescott resident Alan Dean Foster is the author of 130 books. Follow him at AlanDeanFoster. com.