Dr Camilla De Camargo
Police officers are distinct and unique actors in public spaces. They experience a peculiar familiarity with wider society: they often do not personally know the citizens in the areas they patrol but everyone knows that they are part of the police by their uniform. The image of the police has many different aspects and features: it has been designed and re-designed since the inception of the modern police force in 1829 and continues to change year on year. The police uniform is an important part of this image work and image management (Mawby, 2002: 5); it embodies not only the physical exterior, but also the character of individual police forces.
Adaptations to Uniform Policy
The visual representation and symbolic meanings attached to clothing is constructed, reconstructed, managed, controlled and communicated, not only by the uniform designers, but by police officers themselves to make the meaning of their uniform personal. As a consequence, paradoxically, the uniform lacks uniformity in style. Let’s consider the word ‘uniform’ then – it is, according to the Oxford Dictionary, ‘[r]emaining the same in all cases and at all times; unchanging in form or character’. Yet, for various reasons, different versions of the police uniform exist (discussed a little later). It is important therefore to consider how adaptations and modifications can affect public perception of the police. West Midlands Police have said they would consider allowing their Muslim female officers to wear the burka or niqab if they wish, in a drive to recruit more officers from BME backgrounds. The Met and Police Scotland have previously approved the hijab but the burka would be a giant leap in uniform adjustments. Indeed, Conservative MP David Davies criticised the burka as being “a symbol of oppression for women and not something that a modern police force should be supporting” and of course, who can forget the furore surrounding the burka/burkini and the police trying to enforce its ban in France. Our concern however is not with meanings of the burka (or niqab) per se but rather how their incorporation into official police uniform might affect police image work.
So what is a uniform?
Scholars have debated what actually constitutes a ‘uniform’. Simply, ‘(it is) a distinctive dress worn by members of the same body’ (Randell and Gray, 1995: 16). Examination suggests that a uniform is: ‘a prescribed set of clothes which enables the observer to identify the wearer’s organisation or affiliation’ (Bhugra and DeSilva, 1996: 393).
Society learns to distinguish members from non-members of different groups through their uniforms. The attire informs the actor and the audience what to expect from the individual and the organisation. By requiring the donning of a uniform, and thus suppressing personal choice of clothes, the police institution ‘binds the individual to his or her peers, underscores common membership, and encourages a sense of loyalty among members and faithfulness to the same rules’ (Rubenstein, 2001: 87). If an officer does not abide by these rules, the alienation from the group is clear: if the transgression is serious enough, police officers are required to remove (and return) their uniform and accompanying accoutrements that are similarly embedded with the organisation’s authority.
A National Uniform
The police institution’s failure to roll out a national standardised uniform is due to managers not ‘buying into the concept’ (Police Review, 2007: 4), yet this negates the notion that a uniform is actually uniform in style across constabularies. The former ACPO Head of Procurement cited the ‘initial cost of a switch in uniform and a desire to maintain the identity of local forces are some of the factors discouraging people from the national uniform’ (Davies, cited in, Police Review, 2007: 4).
The police uniform, though essentially similar between different forces, has never been exactly the same in detail, colour or insignia nationally. These dissimilarities also apply across ranks and divisions due to the presiding Chief Officer’s preferences for each force, their access to different supply chains locally, and their individual budgets. The 1934 Dixon Committee on uniform consistency advised that ‘all police should be capable of turning out, in both garments and head-dress, approximating closely enough to a uniform pattern as to respects to material and style’ (cited in Clarke, 1991: 16 – emphasis added). Although the police uniform is symbolic and highly recognisable, it is debatable whether not having a set standard uniform for the same ranks causes problems with perceived legitimacy.. Young (1991: 72) contends that the police world does, unsurprisingly, ‘value uniformity’, and as the language suggests, ‘embodies the essentials of a system obsessed with physical and ideological concepts of order and discipline’, which is ‘massively symbolised by the uniform’.
If the police uniform is so iconic and important, in regards to perceptions of power and authority, is it not crucially important that all the police forces in England and Wales wear exactly the same uniform? Perhaps we’re too caught up in idealistic images of our British police in times of tension and unrest; after-all, we often see children falling out of the school gates, ties askew, shirts crumpled and untucked and wearing various items of non-regulation paraphernalia. Yet we know, from a glance, that they all go to the same school. But alas, school children are not hired to protect us, symbolically or otherwise! Research findings from my PhD showed that there are significant disparities between forces – in some London boroughs for instance, there is a shift back to the more ‘professionalised’ look of white shirt, tie and smart trousers; further up North however, there is more of a lean toward ‘militarised’ all black clothing. Other findings show that there are problems with legality and complaints when officers choose to modify their outfits; recognition and trust is important in this relationship, a problem particularly when PCSOs are mistaken for PCs (see De Camargo, 2017 – forthcoming). Across many UK cities, the public must make clear distinctions between PCs, PCSOs, special constables, private security, street wardens, city-centre night marshals, environmental crime officers… and this list is far from exhaustive. This presentation of ‘hybrid’ police may actually ‘heighten anxiety in the community’ (Cooke, 2005: 233). The ‘putting together’ of one’s uniform is personalised as well as regulated… to an extent. Various accoutrements, uniform versions (outdated or otherwise) and huge discrepancies between forces all add up to the uniform not actually being uniform. So while it is admirable that West Midlands Police are using (positive) discriminatory hiring techniques to increase the amount of BME officers to build better relationships with the diverse communities they serve, allowing a blanket covering of identity (and further uniform modification) could potentially further damage the already fragile and fractious police/public relationship.