Dress for Success
Professionalism and respect go hand in hand, and your uniform must reflect thisBy David Kinaan | Jun 23, 2015
I believe many of the issues facing law enforcement today stem from a lack of respect. I also believe that the lack of respect is a direct result of the presentation of law enforcement today. That’s right, presentation—not the actions nor the responses, but how those actions are perceived. Let me give you a few examples.
Cases in Point
In 1984, I drove a black-and-white Dodge Diplomat down the Harbor Freeway in Los Angeles at 55 mph, and no one would pass me. It had nothing to do with me. The public had a respect for that California Highway Patrol star on the door of that Dodge. That respect was earned by hundreds of officers who came before me. Officers who wore clean and pressed wool uniforms. Officers who polished brass belt buckles and name plates. Officers who polished leather boots and wore a tie from October to April every year. Before it was trendy to be referred to as professionals, officers presented themselves as professionals—e.g., sharp, crisp uniforms—earning them respect.
Recently, a friend of mine shared a story about respect and professionalism with me. He told me of a time when CHP officers were required to wear their hat any time they were out of the car. My friend and his partner made a traffic stop, and my friend approached the errant driver and the driver refused to communicate with him. He summoned his partner and the errant driver cooperated fully. My friend was mystified.
Before the errant driver left with a citation, my friend asked why the driver would not communicate with him. The driver explained to my friend that he was not wearing his hat. The driver stated, “Everyone knows Highway Patrol Officers wear their hats.”
Something that seemed so small about my friend’s presentation made all the difference in garnering respect and cooperation from the public we all serve.
Don’t buy it? Take a look at the example of the news media today. A news reporter dressed in a professional looking suit, can stand next to a patrol car that is riddled with bullet holes and say, with a straight face: “Police claim the subject allegedly had a gun and fired at them.”
Anyone with any common sense can look at the bullet holes in the patrol car and know the subject fired a gun at the officers. Yet many will listen and accept as factual what the reporter says. Why? Because the news reporter is dressed sharply and presents his or herself with a seriousness befitting their profession.
How the Boss Dresses
The effect that presentation has on respect and professionalism is not limited to the media and patrol officers. It extends all the way to the highest echelons of a department. They are, after all, the figure heads and primary public points of contact for an agency.
Traveling around the state and the country, I have had the pleasure of meeting officers and administrators from many different agencies. All of them have conducted themselves as professionals, and I’m sure they are capable and competent officers. Some wore a readily recognizable, sharp and pressed uniform, while others wore a BDU-style uniform, or a combination of polo shirts and cargo pants. I have to tell you, those officers in a sharp traditional uniform made a much quicker impression of command and respect.
The difference between a formal and an informal uniform was made evident to me one day while I visited a local restaurant with a group of officers. The patrons in the restaurant cheerfully greeted the officers in uniform. Some patrons introduced their children and others asked to take pictures with those in uniform. No one asked to have their picture taken with the officers in polo shirts.
Recently, I reviewed a video of a squad of officers forming a skirmish line in a council room. The matter before the council was controversial and the parties involved, as well as the spectators in the council room, were all cleanly dressed and not violent or combative. The discussion was heated however. The arrival of the officers, dressed in BDU uniforms, failed to bring a sense of order to the proceeding. I strongly believe that if the officers had arrived in sharply pressed uniforms, they would have brought calm order to that room. But instead the officers looked underdressed and, frankly, out of place.
Bottom line: A sharp uniform promptly commands respect, which goes a long way in achieving cooperation, among other law enforcement goals.
Presenting Competence & Readiness
An officer’s presentation goes deeper than the creases in a uniform. The officer must perform his or her duties confidently and exude that competence to the public.
Your presentation may determine how you are getting home at the end of your shift. In reading the FBI interviews with 50 cop killers, agents asked convicted cop killers why they had accepted a citation from one officer, and yet when contacted by another officer, they fought or simply executed the officer. Again and again, the cop killer explained the first officer appeared like they knew what they were doing and did not give the offender the chance to take them on. The second officer didn’t appear like they knew what they were doing, so the offender took the lethal opportunity.
A sense of pride that naturally occurs when an officer prepares and dresses in a clean, sharp uniform. That sense of pride is reflected in how the officer carries and expresses themselves. A well-dressed officer will naturally display a level of confidence in what they are doing. As you know, confidence in this profession is critical.
While attending an afternoon shift briefing with Sgt. Gordon Graham, he shared a lesson from one of his mentors, Kevin Mince. Graham told us all to take out a $1 bill and look at the eagle on the back: The eagle, a symbol of strength and honor, keeping a watchful eye over all it can see. In its talons, the eagle holds the olive branch of peace and the arrows of war.
Graham explained that the eagle represents law enforcement. That we, as law enforcement officers, fulfill the role of being that honorable and strong, watchful eye, watching over the public we serve. He said it was our role to demonstrate that sense of honor, making every contact by extending the olive branch of peace. At the same time, we have the responsibility to keep the arrows of war ready.
If you haven’t already, take a $1 bill from your wallet and reflect on that …
I fully understand the desire of law enforcement administrators to find options other than the traditional uniform, such as wash-and-wear uniforms popular with the rank and file. I also appreciate the effort, in an attempt to unify officers with the communities they serve, to “dress down.” I’m sure there are times when a tactical or casual uniform is appropriate.
But I believe these should be the exception rather than the rule. At a time when law enforcement officers are being challenged in public opinion, a return to the pride and professionalism of a sharp uniform will go a long way in regaining and maintaining respect.
Stay sharp, and stay safe.