The Medium is the Message

While I was a street cop, I studied to be a sociologist which is the study of human relationships and social institutions. For me, this was a great learning opportunity and knowledge that I carried with me into the ranks and as a police leader.

I recently stopped by a coffee shop in a nearby town and noticed two officers who had stopped by for a “cuppa joe.” They were dressed similar the picture above. I thought maybe they were taking a break from SWAT training. No, this was their standard uniform.

The sociologist in me kicked into gear. The medium (their uniform) was their message (see Marshal McLuhan). And I did not like the message I was receiving because it conflicted with what I saw the mission of police in our society. They both appeared to be nice guys (to me, a white guy and former cop). But I thought how would they appear others? Would they be able to seem available, approachable, open, and trustworthy to all they would meet? I doubt it. The image may be that they were blue-clad tactical soldiers ready for combat in a dangerous environment (which certainly was not the case in the sleepy, upper-middle-class, white town in which I was having coffee.

If the police in every city and town were interested in aligning their mission with their message (appearance) I think they would reconsider this current trend to militarize their clothing and equipment. I see this trend as trying to give an image of protection, but as the loss of serving,

In the past, I have written about how police officers assigned to schools should be dressed — in blazers not tactical gear — because it simply gives students the wrong message. The same could be said about daily patrol gear.

I have little problem with police being adequately equipped to respond to SWAT situations, but for daily patrol wear this is I find is unacceptable. Police must remember that they will be seen more than spoken to.

I am unsure how this all came about. Perhaps it was in response to the fear that permeated the country after that fateful day on September 11, 2001. Nevertheless, police are not to be our urban soldiers. There is a reason why our society has separated the tasks and functions of police and military. We all need to make sure it stays that way.

Some might call what I have to say as “soft policing,” but I must tell you that in working with youth, minority communities, protestors, and hostage-takers, soft works. How any of us present ourselves matters greatly. What’s the message we want our police to broadcast to those who daily encounter them? Dress matters.

If the message we want our police image is that they are helpers, approachable, fair, and trust-worthy, many police are giving the wrong message today.