The psychological influence of the police uniform
By Richard R. Johnson, M.S.
The crisp uniform of the police officer conveys power and authority. When a police officer puts on his or her uniform the officer is perceived in a very different way by the public. He or she is viewed as embodying each person''s stereotypes about all police officers. Research has suggested that clothing has a powerful impact on bow people are perceived, and this goes for the police officer as well. The uniform of a police officer has been found to have a profound psychological impact on those who view it. Research has also suggested that even slight alterations to the style of the uniform will change how citizens will perceive the officer.
The police uniform is a tradition as old as the field of law enforcement itself In 1829 the first modem police force, the London Metropolitan Police, developed the first standard police apparel. These first police officers, the famous "Bobbies" of London, were issued a dark blue, paramilitary-style uniform.. The color blue was chosen to distinguish the police from the British military who wore red and white uniforms at the time. The first official police force in the United States was established in the city of New York in 1845. Based on the London police, the New York City Police Department adopted the dark blue uniform in 1853, Other cities, such as Philadelphia, Boston, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Buffalo, and Detroit quickly followed suit by establishing police departments based on the London model, including the adoption of the dark blue, paramilitary-style uniform.
To this day, the majority of police uniforms in. the United States continue to have a paramilitary appearance and are generally of a dark color. Darker colors may have been preferred for their case in cleaning and their ability to help conceal the wearer in tactical situations. Dark colors help cover up stains and keep the officer from being easily spotted by lawbreakers, especially at night. However, why do most police agencies insist on dressing patrol officers in uniforms? Is this simply because of tradition? Is it only for the ease of identification by citizens? Maybe it is because the uniform actually psychologically influences how officers are perceived by the public.
The Social Significance of Clothing
In early social interactions, clothing has a significant psychological influence on people''s perceptions. Personnel administrators who were asked to rate the competency of similar female job applicants consistently rated the women in conservative, slightly-masculine attire as the most competent. In another study, both high school students and teachers were asked to rate, pictures of female athletes, some of whom were in uniform and the others in casual street clothes, All of the athletes were perceived as being more professional, possessing higher ability, and having more team spirit when viewed in uniform. Both students and teachers, have also rated photos of students in private school-type uniforms as having higher scholastic ability.
The uniform worn by a police officer also elicits stereotypes about that human being''s status, authority, attitudes, and motivations, The police uniform serves to identify a person as one vested with the powers of the state to arrest and use force. The uniform also serves to establish order and conformity within the ranks of those who wear it by suppressing individuality. The psychological and physical impact of the police uniform should not be underestimated. Depending on the background of the citizen, the police uniform can elicit emotions ranging from pride and respect, to fear and anger.
The Power of the Police Uniform
Changes in the Uniform Style
In 1969, the police in Menlo Park, California dispensed with their traditional navy blue, paramilitary-style uniforms and adopted a nontraditional uniform in hopes of improving police community relations. The new, nontraditional uniform consisted of a forest green sport coat blazer worn over black slacks, a white shirt, and a black tie. The officer''s badge was displayed on the blazer and the officer''s weapons were concealed under the coat. Once word spread about Menlo Park''s attempts, over 400 other police department in the United States also experimented with a blazer style uniform.
After wearing the new uniforms for 18 months the Menlo Park police officers displayed fewer authoritarian characteristics on psychological tests when compared to officers in the surrounding jurisdictions. Also for that first one-and-one-half years with the new uniforms, assaults on the Menlo Park police decreased by 30% and injuries to civilians by the police dropped 50%. These changes were originally thought to have been a result of the uniform changes but there were other factors at work at die same time. The number of college educated officers in the department increased dramatically and the traditional autocratic management style of the department was abolished during this same time period.
In 1977, after wearing the blazer style uniform for 8 years, the Menlo Park Police Department realized that the sport coat uniform did not command respect and returned to a traditional, paramilitary-style uniform. A final evaluation showed that although assaults on officers had dropped during the first 18 month of wearing the new uniforms, the number of assaults steadily began to rise again until the rate was double that of the year before the uniform change occurred. During the four years after the Menlo Park police returned to a traditional style uniform the number of assaults against their officers dropped steadily. The experiments with the hats and the style of the police uniform suggest that changes in the style of a police uniform can have an effect on the perceived authority, power, and ability to control. What about the color of the police uniform? Does the color of the uniform psychologically influence the people who view it? Does the color have an influence on the officer who is wearing the uniform?
The Influences of Color
Even people in Europe, Western Asia, Central Africa, and the Middle East had similar perceptions of colors. Across all cultures that have been studied, light colors are consistently associated with goodness and weakness, while dark colors are consistently perceived as strong but evil. On psychological inventories, test subjects rate lighter colors as more pleasant and less dominant. Dark colors on the other hand elicit emotions of anger, hostility, dominance, and aggression.
Color has a considerable impact on clothing and perceptions of the wearer. Clothing color was found as the most common determinant when people rated pictures of models for attractiveness. Job applicants wearing dark business suits were perceived as more powerful and competent than those who wore lighter suits. Another interesting study found that referees who viewed several videotaped plays of a football game were more likely to assess stiffer penalties against a football team wearing a black uniform than a team wearing a brightly colored uniform. The referees consistently perceived the team in black as more aggressive. This experiment was supported by an analysis of all professional football and hockey teams in the U.S. which found that teams who wore dark colored uniforms were assessed far mom penalties for roughness than teams who wore lighter uniforms. Again these results suggest that teams in darker uniforms were perceived negatively by the referees.
Experiments have also suggested that athletes tend to act more aggressively when dressed in dark colors. College students were dressed in black jerseys and grouped into teams of five. They were then asked to rank order which sports they would most like to play. The students consistently ranked the most aggressive sports, such as football and rugby, at the top of the list. The experiment was then repeated with a new group of students and white jerseys. This time the students selected less aggressive sports, such as baseball or basketball.
If the results of these studies in color were applied to the police uniform, it would seem to suggest that darker police uniforms may be sending negative subconscious signals to citizens. A dark police uniform may be subconsciously encouraging citizens to perceive officers as aggressive evil, or corrupt. If this is true, the proliferation of blue-black police uniforms is sending a very negative message to the community. The experiment with the colored jerseys also suggests that police officers in dark uniforms may be subconsciously influenced to act more aggressively. If this is true, police uniform colors need to be modified across the nation.
In one experiment test subjects were presented with color photos of two traditional paramilitary-style uniforms. One of the uniforms, consisted of the dark navy blue shirt and pants that is so commonly worn by municipal police agencies today. The other traditional uniform was that typical of California sheriff deputies, consisting of a khaki shirt and dark green pants. Although both uniforms ranked similarly as good, honest, helpful, and competent, the lighter colored sheriff uniform rated noticeably higher for warmth and friendliness. This finding is significant since the she-tiff uniform only has a light colored shirt, with the pants still being very dark. It would appear that a uniform which is only half dark sends a better message that the all blue/black uniform.
With today''s focus on community-oriented policing and efforts to present a more friendly image to the public, the color of the police officer''s uniform might be making the task more difficult than necessary. Because of the citizen''s negative psychological perception of dark colors, he or she may perceive a police officer in a negative manner partly because of the officer''s uniform color. If referees believe they are seeing more aggressive behavior from athletes wearing black, it may be assumed that citizens will perceive officers in black uniforms as more aggressive than if they were wearing lighter colored uniforms.
Officer Safety Concerns
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 who have murdered police officers indicate that the killers often visually "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. Almost any police officer would immediately draw his or her weapon on a person who is wearing jeans, a T-shirt, and is carrying a gun in his or her hand. A plain clothes officer who is chasing a burglary suspect through backyards at night is at risk of being shot 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.
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.
Research has revealed that alterations to the traditional, paramilitary police uniform can result in changes in perceptions by the public. The style of the clothes, the type of hat worn, the color of the material, and even the condition of the clothes and equipment have an influence on how citizens perceive the officer. For these reasons police administrators need to take their uniform policies seriously. The selection of a uniform style, regulations on the proper wear of the uniform, how well uniforms are maintained, and policies on when officers may wear plain clothes should all be taken very seriously. The police uniform should be considered an important tool for every patrol officer.
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