About a year ago, I suggested that elected officials should dress down (chambray shirts or polo shirts; jeans or khakis) instead of dressing up (suits and ties). Dressing up misrepresents the nature of their jobs, allowing them to obscure what they’re doing — which is acting like our bosses instead of like our employees. Now I’m going to suggest that the same is true of the police.
The police wear uniforms that are dignified to the point of being intimidating. That’s not an accident. These uniforms present policemen as symbols of the authority of the state. Which is exactly backwards from what should be going on.
Sir Robert Peel, the creator of the professional police force, included this as one of his fundamental principles of policing:
To maintain at all times a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and that the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.
Which is to say, the police are like electricians and plumbers — people who have specialized training in some important skills, and work full time applying those skills, but who have no special status beyond that.
However, for both police officers and politicians, the way they dress has been an important component of their gradual elevation into special classes of citizens, with special powers, privileges, perquisites, and protections that aren’t available to the rest of us.
For example, the police can lie to you with impunity. Learning to do that effectively is actually part of their training. But you can’t lie to the police without becoming subject to arrest and prosecution.
Killing a police officer carries special penalties, unlike the penalties that would apply to killing anyone else.
The police have qualified immunity, and good faith exceptions, which means that what’s legal for them is very different from what’s legal for you. (For example, if you stole $225,000 from someone, you could be prosecuted or sued… unless you were a cop, in which case it would be okay.)
When the police are accused of doing something wrong, they get to investigate themselves. Wouldn’t you love to have that option?
And so on.
The 14th Amendment says that everyone is entitled to equal protection of the laws. But the protections for police officers and politicians are more equal than the protections offered to everyone else.
Now, I’m not saying that the all this is the direct result of giving police officers imposing uniforms and impressive badges. But I do believe that it contributes significantly to the problems we’re experiencing now.
How should the police dress? Well, it should be distinctive enough that it’s easy to tell an officer from a non-officer. But at the same time, it should remind officers, every minute of every day that they’re on the job, where the authority actually lies — with the rest of us.
Maybe safety yellow Carharrt jackets and jeans or carpenter pants?
Like electricians and plumbers — and firefighters — the police should come only when they’re called, perform their specialized skills (e.g., collecting evidence in a way that preserves its admissibility in court), and then go away.
Like electricians and plumbers — and firemen — the police should dress for function, and avoid any appearance that suggests they have more authority or more powers than anyone else.
As Jefferson noted: ‘When governments fear the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny.’ If the police are to be symbols of government, they should clearly represent a government that is made up of servants, and not masters.