The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A fashion change is coming for D.C.’s men and women in blue

Officer Linwood Solomon models the new, navy blue uniform at D.C. police headquarters in August. He wears the short-sleeve shirt with bullet-resistant vest. This is the first uniform change for D.C. police in decades. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)

It’s about comfort. And durability. And stealth. After decades wearing light-blue uniform shirts, D.C. police are switching to navy blue.

The shift from light to dark comes with a new design — hidden, internal suspenders to more evenly distribute the weight of the gun belt and potentially ease back pain. The new shirts also allow for bullet-resistant vests, now placed under uniform shirts, to be worn on the outside.

Police Chief Peter Newsham tweeted that his crime fighters are excited about the fashion change for one simple reason: The shirts are “more comfortable.”

Color and style can matter, and experts on policing say that what the police wear can say a lot about how officers and their departments are perceived. Police agencies around the country have for years experimented with different colors for cruisers and clothes — lighter, many believe, generally reflects a commitment to “community policing,” and darker projects authority.

Dustin Sternbeck, the D.C. police department’s chief spokesman, said the chosen design for shirts — and pants — has more to do with therapeutic care and convenience than promoting a certain image. He said the new shirts are more durable, holding up through more washes.

“The main benefit for our police officers is all-around wellness,” Sternbeck said. He said the built-in suspenders should help reduce the number of officers suffering back pain.

Switching to a design that puts the bullet-resistant vests on top of the shirts also will be a welcome change, police said. With the lighter-colored shirts, police were required to wear the vests underneath so as not to cover up their uniforms. Officers complained of excessive sweating, rashes and itching.

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The new shirts incorporate an outer vest into the design, with a place for the name tag, badge and body-worn camera centered just below the breast pockets. The vest blends into the darker shade of blue. Both shirts are made in Mexico — the older was a blend of 80 percent polyester and 20 percent rayon. The new shirts are 100 percent polyester.

Officers will begin wearing the new uniforms in October, authorities said.

Sgt. Stephen Bigelow Jr., chairman of the D.C. police labor union, said officers like the new uniforms. He said they will be able take their ballistic vests off when writing reports. Even when officers are wearing full equipment, he said, the new uniforms are “a lot cooler,” and they are easy to clean.

Some said officers will feel safer at night because they won’t be as conspicuous.

D.C. police spent $5.2 million over fiscal years 2017 and 2018 to upgrade the uniforms. The department typically spends $3 million a year on new and replacement uniforms, and expects to return to that level of expenditure after the uniforms have been distributed to roughly 3,400 patrol officers and sergeants. Those with ranks of lieutenant and higher wear white shirts, an indication that they are supervisors.

Even while D.C. police say they’re not trying to make a statement, that interpretation is sometimes difficult to avoid. Police continually try to project a positive image of the force through social media, showing officers mingling with residents at cookouts, feeding babies and dancing to street music.

Image matters in policing

At a white-supremacist rally in Washington last month, the decision by D.C. police to keep officers dressed in routine patrol uniforms rather than switching to riot gear helped exude a sense of calm on an otherwise tense day.

Other times, police departments adapt their officers’ dress to project strength. Edward T. Norris, a former police commissioner in Baltimore and police commander in New York City, noted that tactical officers in New York’s Times Square wear riot helmets and carry military-style rifles. “They want to look intimidating,” Norris said, “to deter terrorists and to make the tourists feel safer.”

Norris changed the color of patrol officers’ shirts in New York and in Baltimore from white to navy blue, saying the darker color commanded more respect for the officers and boosted their self-confidence. He termed navy blue a “classic color that conveys authority,” and he likened officers’ wearing loosefitting, light-colored uniforms to their “looking like refrigerator repairmen.”

When he led the Baltimore force, Norris noted, he wore custom-designed shirts with creases sewn in.

“You wouldn’t go to a doctor who was wearing a baggy shirt. You’d have no confidence in him,” Norris said. “Same for police. Police come to you in your worst times of your life. They should look professional.”

History shows that police departments have long experimented with different looks. In 1969, a small police department in California tried forest-green blazers, which were thought to be “friendlier,” and 400 other agencies quickly copied the move, according to Richard R. Johnson, a criminologist and former police officer writing in Police One magazine.

The results were mixed. Johnson reported that assaults by and on officers in the California department dropped at first but then went up, as officers tried to combat what they felt was a lack of respect. He said the numbers went down again when the agency returned to the previous dress.

New York police tried baseball caps in the early 1990s but later thought they looked unprofessional and barred them. Police in Baltimore in the early 1990s tried “baby blue” police cars but abandoned the idea, at a cost of $2 million, when officers and residents complained that the image was impish. Baltimore police cars are now black.

David Alan Sklansky, a professor of criminal law at Stanford University, said that “what the police wear is not as important as how they act. I don’t think that any kind of police uniform will magically transform an officer into the kind of officer that people want. . . . I don’t think a lot rides on what shade of blue a uniform is. There are departments that dress officers in all black, and there have been plenty of incidents of bad policing carried out by officers in powder-blue uniforms.”

Just the same, Sklansky, who is also faculty co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, said “uniforms can send a signal to citizens about how the police see themselves and how they expect to be seen in the community. A professional uniform can send them a message that they are expected to act professionally.”

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