Every so often, I read a story of a police raid gone wrong. Sometimes, it’s a ‘wrong house’ situation, sometimes it’s an unfortunate outcome of someone ‘swatting‘ someone else, sometimes it’s overzealousness on the part of an investigator, a district attorney, a politically minded police department official, or an overly zealous raiding team. Most are related to the drug war, and many of these stories fit into the category of police “militarization” that author and commentator Radley Balko writes of. This was a hot-topic issue a couple years ago, when the Federal government offered up lots of surplus military equipment to local police departments, large and small, but it has faded into the background of late.

That’s unfortunate, because some of the same questions raised about the propensity for excess when a police department is equipped with tanks and other military gear apply to the strained relations between police and the public today. In particular, I refer to the increased propensity for our law enforcement officers to dress like soldiers.

Professionally, and with apologies to George Michael, the clothes do make the man. Businesspeople, attorneys, politicians, maitre d’s, concierges, and many others wear suits to work. Doctors wear lab coats. Pilots wear uniforms, as do hotel receptionists, casino dealers and croupiers, and foodservice workers. Mechanics wear logo’ed overalls. Delivery people and utility service workers wear the attire of their jobs In terms of practicality, all these people could easily and more comfortably perform their jobs in t-shirts and jeans, and yet they don’t.

Why? Because the image an individual presents to others impacts his or her interaction with the world. So it goes for law enforcement.

Consider these two images, one of a police officer in traditional uniform, the other in military-style garb. Now, consider the attitude infused via the clothing selection. Whereas the police officer in uniform is likely to perceive his job as shepherding “his” community, the military-garbed officer is likely to perceive his job as going against “others,” i.e. people not of his community, i.e. “enemies.” One suggests and invites professionalism, the other suggests and invites fear and/or aggression, both from and to the police officer. This disparity in attitude is problematic, both in theory and in real-world tragedy (as a study showing increased police violence coinciding with increased militarization tells us). It may also be deliberate, which makes it even more worrisome.

Uniforms are strongly tied to work cultures. Uniforms are a point of pride, and they command respect from both their wearers and those who interact with their wearers. They affect mentalities and mind-sets, and when we accept those who are support to “protect and serve” wearing military-style attire instead of traditional police attire, we contribute to the increased friction between law enforcement and communities. Yes, there are times when BDUs are appropriate, and there are times when the message sent by such attire may be called for, but we should expect those to be the minimized exception, not “every chance we get,” which seems the prevalent attitude. The wrong attire may go beyond the mindset of the wearers into the realm of unnecessary escalations (think, urban unrest that turns into a riot), with tragic consequence.

People continue to fret about the discord between cops and communities, but too few address one easy step in the right direction: Dress cops like cops, not like soldiers. Lovers of liberty, especially, should see the wisdom in this.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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