THE MILITARIZATION OF THE TACTICAL UNIFORM
BY BRIAN COLE
As a child growing up in the 1980s, I always knew what I wanted to do in life. I wanted to be a police officer. More specifically, I wanted to be a federal law enforcement officer – FBI, DEA, U.S. Marshal, or U.S. Secret Service agent. But I was also heavily influenced toward pursuing a military career because my father had served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam. As a child growing up I easily distinguished the difference between a police officer and a soldier. The police officer wore blue and the soldier wore green. Popular Hollywood television series I watched as a child such as Adam-12 and MASH also associated blue with the police and green with the U.S. Military. Hence, as I child I had already developed an image of what a police officer and soldier looked like based on their uniforms.
In July 1995, I started my law enforcement career as a local police officer. Once I graduated from the police academy, I was assigned to the uniformed patrol division. My standard issued police uniform was called LAPD blue because it resembled the blue uniform worn by the Los Angeles Police Department Patrol Division. During my four years employed as a local police officer and while on duty dressed in my police uniform, I was never mistaken as a soldier.
In June 1999, I started my law enforcement career as a federal law enforcement officer. Once I graduated from the federal law enforcement academy, I wasn’t issued a standard police uniform. Instead, I was issued a tactical police uniform that consisted of a black protective outer vest with gold police insignia, gray BDU pants, and standard police duty belt with standard police equipment such as handcuffs, collapsible baton, and pepper spray. Although my tactical police uniform was different from that of my patrol officer uniform, I was still easily identifiable as a police officer.
Today many law enforcement agencies throughout the United States now issue a military-styled camouflaged uniform for their specialized tactical units such as SWAT and SRT. Many tactical units have moved toward the multi-cam tactical police uniform that resembles the uniform worn by the U.S. military. According to Johnson (2017) research has suggested that “clothing has a powerful impact on how 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.” Gene Veith (2014) noted in his article “The problem with Cops in Camo,” U.S. citizens who live in a free society inherently have a fear that the military could be turned into a military force against its people. Veith noted that “when local police dress up like soldiers, the perception – indeed, the meaning – is that the community is under military occupation from its own government.”
When I entered the law enforcement profession, I entered it because I felt an inherent duty to serve and protect the public just like the police officers I imagined on the fictional television series Adam-12. I never entered the law enforcement profession to be perceived by the public as a soldier. When the U.S. tactical police uniform resembles the U.S. military uniform, it causes confusion among the citizenry. It undermines the community-oriented police image of a public servant and replaces it with the image of a soldier. By investing in a traditional tactical police uniform, law enforcement leaders can reshape the “profound psychological impact” on its citizenry spoken of by Johnson (2017) from an image of MASH back to the image of Adam-12.
Johnson, R. (2017, August 11) The psychological influence of the police uniform. Retrieved from https://www.policeone.com/police-products/apparel/uniforms/articles/99417-The-psychological-influence-of-the-police-uniform/
Veith, Gene (2014, August 18) The problem with cops in camo. Retrieved from http://www.patheos.com/blogs/geneveith/2014/08/the-problem-with-cops-in-camo/
About the Author:
Brian Cole is a Supervisory Special Agent (SSA) with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Oakland, California. SSA Cole holds a BA in Political Science from the University of Alabama and a MSCJ in Criminal Justice from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. SSA Cole was previously employed as a police officer with the Montgomery Police Department in Montgomery, Alabama.
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