Q: I have lived in Santa Monica for years and have always wondered why our police officers wear the uniforms that they do? We are a coastal city, why don’t all the officers just wear shorts in the summer and regular cop uniforms in the winter?
A: There are a variety of police uniforms and the styles vary depending on the location of the agency. Although we are a beach community, the type of attire for one agency may not be appropriate for another, and the job function for a particular unit or agency may call for certain types of clothing and colors. Each division of law enforcement also determines what equipment to issue with the uniform.
Historians recognize the London Metropolitan Police Department as the first law enforcement entity to issue uniforms to its officers as standard work wear in 1829. In 1853, New York City’s police department became the first agency in the United States to issue uniforms to its officers. Many other jurisdictions in the U.S. and other countries have since made uniforms an important part of their police forces. Most uniforms are dark in color, with matching shirts and pants. There are variations for different conditions, such as our bicycle patrol officers who work the Third Street Promenade, beach or Pico Neighborhood who wear shorts in warm weather or when riding bicycles. Then there are our motorcycle officers who wear customized jackets and boots for safety and cold weather. There are even formal hats that we wear on special occasions, such as a funerals or memorial services.
The police badge is the standard identification for officers in the U.S. and around the world. The officer’s department, serial number and/or rank can usually be found on his or her badge, and an officer may get an additional badge based on the number of years that he or she has been on the police force. Special awards or recognitions for good work may also come in the form of a “special” badge indicating the achievement.
Police officer uniforms are also characterized by accessories that help officers perform their daily tasks. Gloves, boots and holster belts for guns are items that can be found on most patrol officers. Investigators and detectives in different departments may wear professional attire since the majority of their work is done in offices, courtrooms and through interviews with regular citizens where standard police uniforms may be overbearing and intimidating. These officers still carry holsters that hold weapons for protection. Tactical units such as our S.W.A.T. and K-9 teams wear light weight tactical uniforms and appropriate tactical gear that is better suited for their tasks.
It is critical that a police officer wear his or her assigned uniform properly in order to be recognizable in case law enforcement services are needed. The main purpose of the police uniform is to establish respect from the public while emphasizing the presence of justice when confronted by potential law breakers.
In summary, the uniform of a Santa Monica police officer conveys the power and authority of the person wearing it. Clothing, including the police uniform, has been found to have a powerful psychological impact on those who view it. When humans contact other humans they subconsciously search for clues about the other person so that they can understand the context of the encounter. The police uniform is a powerful clue as to the wearer’s authority, capabilities, and status.
Research has revealed that the uniform has a subconscious psychological influence on people, based on the person’s preconceived feelings about police officers. When a person wears the police uniform, citizens tend to be more cooperative with his or her requests. People also tend to curb their illegal or deviant behaviors when a police uniform is visible in the area.
In addition to the color, the condition of a police officer’s uniform and equipment can also have an impact on the officer’s safety. Interviews with prison inmates have indicated that they have often “sized-up” the officer before deciding to use violence. If the officer looked or acted “unprofessional” in the assailant’s eyes, then the assailant felt that he was capable of successfully resisting the officer. A dirty or wrinkled uniform or a badly worn duty belt may convey a message to a suspect that the officer has a complacent attitude about his or her job. This complacency can be an invitation to violence.
In many situations involving the use of force, the fact that a police officer has a distinguishable uniform can help prevent the officer’s injury or death. An officer in plain clothes is at risk of being harmed by citizens and other officers as a result of misidentification. A plain clothes officer who is chasing a burglary suspect through backyards at night is at risk of being confronted by a home owner who believes the officer to be a criminal. The uniform helps both citizens and fellow police officers identify the wearer as having a legitimate purpose for trespassing, using force, or carrying a weapon.
So now you can see, not all of our uniform configurations may be appropriate for each and every assignment. What is important to remember is that a police officer’s uniform should be unequivocally recognizable and conducive to his or her tasks and environment. Additionally, a police officer’s uniform should convey a professionalism that is seldom paralleled but greatly respected and appreciated by those they serve.
This column was prepared by NRO Robert Lucio (Beat 6: Montana Avenue to Interstate 10, 20th Street to Centinela Avenue). He can be reached at (424) 200-0686 or firstname.lastname@example.org.