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.

5 Comments

  1. I don’t often find myself in agreement with you David, but the way we present ourselves certainly does have an impact on how we are perceived by others. More importantly, the way we dress and present ourselves has an impact on how we act toward others. This outfit is entirely appropriate for tactical officers but not for routine duty.

    If police officers accept the role of servants and wish to be respected by the public then they should dress themselves accordingly. The concept is very simple, if you want to be respected look respectable. That is why there were no tattoos, earrings or beards on my department, I wanted my cops to be respected and to have every advantage. With regard to the tactical uniforms, dress for the job you have, not the job you may want.

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    1. Eureka. I tend to agree (except for the beards)! Seattle has great resources and has the ability to solve this — and it must be with police input and participation. A great city and great police together can do this.

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  2. Can compassion go too far?

    If you have not already seen this documentary its a great example of what can happen when we allow too much “soft” policing.

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    1. I’ll take a look at it. But an old buddy who was a dog trainer always reminded me that it was a lot easier to teach a gentle (soft) dog to attack when necessary than teach an attack dog how to be gentle (soft). Again, we can agree to disagree…

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  3. If you wanted to join the British police, then you had to remove your tattoos. It is ridiculous that cops are wearing tattoos even on their necks. They are being like the Yakuza and the Mexico Mafia.

    Cops are wearing this gear because they say that the streets are dangerous and the crooks have better guns and ammo. Well so what? Many of them were in the military and they didn’t complain about getting shot in Iraq and Afghanistan considering the fact that their opponents have the same firepower that they had so why complain about it now that they are cops? One of the differences between a cop and a soldier is that a soldier can get court-martial and depend on the country’s military you serve in, you either get a prison sentence or executed for cowardice in the face of the enemy not to mention undermining good order and discipline in the military. You can’t do that with cops considering the fact that you heard stories about cops refusing to go to 911 calls when shots are involved. In addition, cops can quit anytime they want to, you can’t do that in the military. No one twisted the cop’s arm and told him to become a police officer.

    Cops play a significant role in creating what society is today, so they need to settle up and accept the fact that they are just as much responsible for creating the soceity for what it is today.,

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