Is Your “Uniform” Putting You at Risk?

By Dave Grossi  |   Nov 6, 2019

No doubt this piece is going to tick off a few cops.  I’ve noticed a trend over the past few years for officers to “dress down” while on duty. I’m not talking about a few cops going rogue, but a formal policy of abandoning traditional police monochromatic uniforms for polo-type shirts, tan tactical pants and sneaker-type footwear as on-duty street uniforms.

I recently traveled up to the great northeast to attend a formal evening police function at my former agency in upstate NY.  The occasion was a police banquet sponsored by our PBA and attended by a host of local business leaders, politicians, media-types, police brass, current officers and a few “old retired guys” like yours truly. By formal, I mean suit and tie. No uniform required although the high-ranking brass did wear dress blues.  I also spent a day at headquarters visiting some of the staff.  I took notice that all the patrol troops and bosses were dressed as cops; dark blue uniform shirts, trousers, ties, black boots or shoes and the appropriate accouterments of their office prominently displayed on their shirts.

Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be cause for an entire 850-word article, but in case you haven’t noticed, some street and/or patrol cops aren’t dressing like cops anymore.  Perhaps it’s a regional thing, but I hope it hasn’t become a national trend. I’ll explain my concerns in a moment; but first my observations.

It appears that a few agencies have adopted a style that’s far and away from what most citizens think of when they envision a police officer or deputy sheriff.  I’m not talking about detectives; this pertains to patrol officers. More than a few agencies have adopted polo shirts of assorted colors (green, blue or black), tan tact pants, baseball caps, and beige or brown canvas boots as day-to-day street patrol uniforms.  The shirts do have embroidered badges, shields or stars on the left breast area.  Sometimes ball caps aren’t even worn.  By way of complete disclosure, the uniform sheriff’s deputies where I reside down here in Paradise wear full dark green uniforms (short sleeve shirts and matching trousers) although they do allow ball caps for headgear.  The sheriff’s detectives wear open collar dress shirts and dress pants with their sheriff’s stars displayed on their belts.

My former agency has now adopted this more casual style in certain limited settings.  For example; when I was the Range Master all our firearms instructors wore gray uniforms. This is significant since the recruits attending our municipal academy are supervised by a host of range officers on loan from several local agencies during their 80 hours of firearms training. All instructors wear grays with their agency patches on the left shoulders in contrast to the recruits’ tans.  While at home last month, I observed that our range instructors have abandoned the aforementioned grays and now wear tan tactical pants and black polos with either silver or gold embroidered badges (depending on rank) on the left breast pocket area.  No big deal really, since the audience is all cops.

But here’s my concern. Common officer safety protocol has always dictated that the first person into or through a door at any high-risk arrest scene, like a search or arrest warrant, is always a recognizable uniform officer. When you yell “POLICE” you want to look like the police.  When I was a detective, I always followed a uniform into the home or business on high-risk events even if I wore a raid-type windbreaker. Wearing military-type garb (i.e., instantly recognizable standard-issue police uniforms by the lead officer through the door), was a matter of not only officer safety, but a solid defense in court should resistance be met during entry. Even during an investigative non-arrest arrival at a location, my plainclothes partner and I were quick to have our badges out and ready to display so there’s no confusion on who and what we were. You never wanted an occupant who resisted, especially with violence where force had to be used, to claim “I didn’t know they were cops.”  However, I’m concerned this trend of wearing casual street clothes (polos, tactical khaki-like pants, and beige or brown canvas boots) by patrol officers might create an issue when none should ever exist. In a training setting, I don’t see a problem.  But on the street?  I’m not so sure.

Now I know the Sam Browne and related items/tools offer some measure of authority on the part of the casually dressed officer.  But there’s no doubt that the claim by a resident that the person standing at their door late one night dressed in a short sleeve polo-type shirt, tan pants, and light brown sneaker-like footwear wasn’t a law officer could bear some truth.  Especially when a clever plaintiff’s attorney produces two huge side-by-side photos, one of a traditionally dressed officer in full monochromatic dark blue (green or tan) uniform and police hat next to another photo of the defendant officer wearing a green polo shirt and khaki-like pants while accusingly asking the civilian jury “which one looks like the officer here?”

What say you?  I’d like to hear from some of our readers on whether ol’ Dave has gone off the deep end on a non-issue or whether you think my concerns have some validity. E-mail us at [email protected] and share your thoughts.

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Dave Grossi is a retired police lieutenant from upstate NY now residing in southwest FL. He was the Lead Instructor for the Calibre Press, Inc. Street Survival Seminars from 1988 through 2000.