The Evolution of Police Uniforms in America

The Evolution of Police Uniforms in America

Nov 19, 2021

Uniforms have two principal purposes: denoting that their wearers are part of a common unit and separating their wearers from those who don’t have similar attire. This is pertinent to our police departments, who don their uniforms with pride as they separate themselves from the general public while still acting as a civilian force. However, the uniforms today’s officers wear bear little resemblance to those they wore a century ago. They have even seen significant changes over the past few decades. The evolution of police uniforms in America has taken them from overseas inspirations to Civil War surplus to their current form today. All the while, they’ve projected power, authority, and readiness.

Beginning With “the Bobbies”

Like many American traditions, the disparate sartorial elements that compose the American police uniform have their roots overseas on the sceptered isle of Great Britain. The London Metropolitan Police was the first recognizably modern constabulary in the western world. The police officers of “Scotland Yard,” also known as “the Bobbies,” developed a uniform that identified them as a civilian police force in contrast to military-based law enforcement. While the British military still famously wore red—the “Redcoats” of the Revolutionary War—the Metropolitan Police instead donned navy blue. This markedly set the military and civilians apart in the eyes of the London citizenry. As police forces developed across the pond, they too would wear blue, but often for different reasons.

19th-Century Urban Policing

Following the development of London’s police and their trademark blues, the first modern uniformed police force in America formed in New York in 1854. The New York Metropolitan Police patterned themselves after the new professionalized police of London, wearing similar dark blue overcoats. In the coming years, other major cities, such as Chicago and Boston, would adopt official police forces of their own, with smaller cities taking cues in the years to follow. Following the end of the Civil War, many of these new police departments would adopt navy blue uniforms of their own, but not because they admired fashion-forward London. Instead, many of these “new” police uniforms were not new at all but rather hand-me-downs from the Union Army, who famously donned blue uniforms against the greys of the Confederacy. Critics of recent appropriations will note that the notion of receiving surplus gear from the military is hardly a new one in American history, having been a part of policing since its early days.

The Canonical Police Uniform

The 20th century placed dual emphases on the range of motion and professionalism with what still endures as the popular conception of a police uniform, even as it evolved in the intervening years. This generally consisted of a button-down light blue shirt paired with navy blue trousers. The familiar peaked hat with its badge, trim, and short visor became a signature element of police uniforms in the prior century and is still a part of law-enforcement uniforms today. In an effort to reassert the civilian nature of the New York Police Department, officials replaced the peaked hat with NYPD-lettered baseball caps in an eventually abandoned experiment to casualize the police department. The events shortly following the turn of the millennium would all but end efforts to present an informal police department. In fact, what was to come was anything but casual.

The 21st Century and an Increase in Tactical Gear

The terrorist attacks of September 11 led to a significant development in the evolution of police uniforms in America. Congress’s omnibus appropriations bill of 2005 contained a provision called the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program, named for an NYPD officer who died in the line of duty. A Byrne Grant is a type of block grant that the federal government issues to state and municipal police departments, which they may then allocate as they please. Many departments used their grants to purchase military surplus equipment. The result was a police force that naturally appeared to be closer to soldiers than local police officers. The intent behind this military-style outfitting was to provide officers with increased safety and tactical gear. Instead, these uniforms often militated adversarial relationships between police forces and the communities they serve.

The Modern Move to Black

Along with the move toward increased body armor and more sophisticated equipment came another readily visible change: the shift from blue uniforms to black. Traditionally, blue was so associated with law enforcement that “the boys in blue” was a light-hearted epithet for the local police force. Today, the boys in blue in many American communities have given way to the men and women in black. This change has its critics. Black apparel has a sometimes controversial connotation in the public imagination. Outside formal settings, black clothing often symbolizes aggression and sinister nature. It wasn’t accidental that the then-Oakland Raiders of the NFL chose to outfit themselves in silver and black as they cultivated an image of hard-nosed ruthlessness. Johnny Cash did not become “the Man in Black” to emphasize his friendliness.

While popular among many who serve and protect, numerous civilians yearn for a return to the more soothing blue hues of police uniforms rather than the stark and authoritarian all-black ensembles. Studies into the psychological connotations of color have found that black clothing fosters fear and distrust, particularly vis-à-vis lighter alternatives. One study showed that the double-blue ensemble of light blue shirts with navy pants elicited more favorable feelings than black over black.

It bears mentioning that not all police officers have made the change to modern black uniforms. The Colorado State Troopers still pair light blue shirts with khaki pants. Moreover, members of the California Highway Patrol, the state police force of the Golden State, still wear the tan uniforms that the 1970s series CHiPs made internationally famous. Select municipal police forces, perhaps with the studies into civilian trust in mind, still embrace blue as the color of law enforcement as well. And, of course, thousands of police officers serve ethically and honorably in full black.

Outfit Your Force With KEL-LAC Uniforms

No matter what sartorial direction you want to take your municipality’s police department, KEL-LAC Uniforms boasts civilian police, fire, and EMS uniforms in addition to military offerings. Our high-quality uniforms will keep police departments comfortable and prepared for the challenges that modern policing presents.

The Evolution of Police Uniforms in America