BDUs and Community Policing?

battle dress utilitiesAre BDUs compatible with the goals of community policing? The name itself—“battle dress uniform” or “battle dress utilities” (BDU)—seems antithetical to the philosophy of community policing.

All across the United States and over to the United Kingdom (UK) we are seeing a growing trend toward adoption of the BDU-style uniform for daily use by patrol personnel. This poses the question; does this warrior look have an adverse impact on the relationship development and partnership building that is inherent in community policing? Critics have cautioned that a more militarized look may have a negative impact on both public perception and how officers view their role. 1

The significance of a police officer’s dress should not be underestimated. “The uniform stands as one of the most important visual representations of the law enforcement profession.”2 Persons in uniform have been found to project a professional bearing as well as perceived competence, reliability and intelligence 3 all of which are critical in establishing community trust.

While some departments are trying to instill the principles of community policing throughout their agency and the community they serve, the dress of their patrol force may be creating unnecessary barriers. The psychological impact an officer’s uniform has on a citizen can be profound. Changes in the uniform’s appearance, even small ones, can alter a citizen’s perception of the officer. 4

Some citizens may get emotional cues from the police uniform, particularly the color, that can elicit either respect, fear, or anger. Research suggests that officers too, through their demeanor and actions, may be influenced by the uniform they wear. 5 Research on some professional athletes, the color of their uniforms, and how they act as well as how they are perceived suggests that black uniforms influence aggression.6 In other research light colors have been associated with good and with a perceived weakness while darker colors have been associated with evil and a perceived strength. 7

“With today’s focus on community-oriented policing and efforts to present a friendlier image to the public, the color of the police officer’s uniform might make the task more difficult than necessary.”8

Some departments have seen resistance from the public to the move toward dark colored BDUs for daily wear by their patrol force.

After changing from a more traditional uniform of tunic, matching trousers, white shirt and black tie to an operational “American SWAT” type uniform during 2004 and 2005, the North Wales police in the UK saw pressure in 2010 to return to the traditional look. A survey found some citizens had less confidence in the “professionalism and honesty” of the officers patrolling in what has been referred to as the American SWAT type of uniform.9 Some minor changes were made but according to the North Wales police the BDU look remains for most operational officers.

The Spokane Washington police department has also been urged to move away from what has been characterized as a black jumpsuit that looks much like BDUs in order to rebuild trust in the community. A city councilman who is also a former police officer is at the forefront of the movement for change. He believes the “militaristic black jumpsuit” may be a contributing factor to the dwindling public trust.10 In the spring of 2009 a group of students, law enforcement professionals, in Johns Hopkins University’s Public Safety Leadership Program did a project on Public Perception toward Police Uniforms for their Research and Evaluation class. As a class project it was somewhat limited in scope but none-the-less produced results that were quite interesting.

They found that, regarding the BDU uniform, chiefs based their opinions “solely on their assumptions and not on evidentiary research.”11 Using surveys of the public in which a photo lineup depicted officers in a traditional class “B” uniform and BDUs, it was discovered that the traditional class “B” uniform was preferred over the BDUs. The results showed that the respondents believed the officers in the class “B” uniform were more approachable and they preferred to have this officer respond to their call for service rather than the officer in the BDUs.12 The more militaristic look of the BDUs, much like what is seen in news stories of our military in war zones, gives rise to the notion of our police being an occupying force in some inner city neighborhoods, instead of trusted community protectors.

Concerns about public trust and the influence exerted by the uniform are not new. When formed in 1829, the London Metropolitan Police Department, the model on which American policing is based, ensured that the uniform would be distinctly different than that of the military of the day. In an effort to gain public trust and confidence, Sir Robert Peel, founder of the department, made certain that there was a clear distinction between the new police and the military. One such way was through a distinctively different looking uniform. So it may be wise to move slowly when contemplating a uniform change. The wrong move may hinder efforts to establish and sustain a relationship with the community that is based on trust and confidence.

Karl W. Bickel
Senior Policy Analyst
The COPS Office

1 Balko, R (2011, September 12) A Decade After 9/11, Police Departments Are Increasingly Militarized. The Huffington Post. accessed 8/15/2012.

2 Tinsley, P.N., D. Plecas, and G.S. Anderson. 2003. “Studying Public Perceptions of Police Grooming Standards.” The Police Chief vol. 70(11) November.

3 Ibid.

4 Johnson, R. R. 2001. The Psychological Influence of the Police Uniform. The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, March.

5 Ibid.

6 Boxer, S. 1989. Dark Forces. Sports Illustrated Vol. 70 Issue 17.

7 Johnson, R. R. 2001. The Psychological Influence of the Police Uniform. The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, March

8 Ibid.

9 Tozer, J. 2010. Police axe new trendy “SWAT” uniforms as people “trust officers in baseball caps less.” The Daily Mail, Mail online

10 O’Brien, C. 2012. Spokane Councilman thinks new uniforms may help PR crisis. News

11 Jackson, S., M. Hill, T. Gregory, F. Doyle, and Deangelo. (2009, May 1) Public Perception toward Police Uniforms. Paper presented at Johns Hopkins University Public Safety Leadership Program, Research and Evaluation, 700.317.9A Spring of 2009.

12 Ibid.

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