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  • Iain Donnelly

Time for a serious talk about British police uniforms

Updated: Apr 24, 2021

It struck me while I was listening back to one of my TJF podcasts with Kay, my wife, that I need to be as balanced as possible in what I say about policing past and present.

Whilst there’s no-one who’s a greater cheerleader for policing than me, the police service must never be immune from legitimate criticism where appropriate. I had an interesting exchange with a group of ex-colleagues on social media where the subject of standards of appearance and behaviour came up.

So, in the spirit of giving ‘tough love’, here goes!

There was an image widely circulated in the media yesterday of several officers from a force in the North of England standing in front of a location where the police had been called to keep the peace. I won’t say which force it was because I don’t want those officers to feel personally attacked. There is quite enough of that going on at the moment.

However, they all looked incredibly scruffy. None of them wore a hat, several had hands in pockets, and this, combined with those awful hi-vis jackets, made them look (in the words of one of the ex-officers on the thread) ‘like a bunch of security guards on a building site’. It was difficult to understand why they thought that this was acceptable, particularly as the place was swarming with journalists and cameras, guaranteeing that they would end up on newspapers and websites across the world.

My own experience of the last ten to fifteen years was that gradually, ever so gradually, police uniforms became more and more paramilitary in appearance and this casual look, with some forces even adopting baseball caps (God help us), created an increasingly casual and lax attitude.

I know that I have a bee in my bonnet about scrapping the height restriction for police officers years ago and adopting almost non-existent fitness requirements. Still, all these factors conspired, together with the sloppy-looking uniforms, to erode the gravitas and credibility of uniform police officers in Britain, and thus the respect that they were able to command in the eyes of the public.

A very short, over-weight, scruffy police officer with two days of beard growth and both arms covered in tattoos just isn’t going to command any respect.

I know that I probably sound like a complete dinosaur saying that, but I make no apologies. I accept that tattoos have become ubiquitous today, in a way that they weren’t when I joined. However, I genuinely wince when I see uniformed officers covered in tattoos. By all means, have tattoos, and show them off when you’re not at work, but I just don’t think it looks professional on uniform police officers. They need to cover them up.

How would you feel if you went to see a doctor or a solicitor, and you walked in to find them covered in tattoos? Confident? I’m not against tattoos, each to their own; but this is about projecting a smart, professional appearance to people of every age and social background.

I definitely believe that a solid line can be drawn between the adoption of a casual appearance and the erosion of public respect and trust.

This increasingly casual appearance was also accompanied by PCs' increasingly casual attitude towards police supervisors and by supervisors towards PCs. Many years ago, the only place you would have called a Sergeant by his or her first name was in the pub, and even then, I found it hard doing that. For Inspectors and above, it would have been totally unheard of to call them by their first name. This over-familiarity makes it much harder for supervisors to challenge unacceptable behaviour or under-performance. Thus the cycle of lax standards spirals downwards.

I often think about how Colonel David Hackworth, one of the most highly decorated US military officers in history, took on a demoralised, slovenly company of conscripts in the Vietnam war and turned them into an elite fighting force by setting very high standards.

I once sent a slovenly PC packing when he came into my office when I was a DI, asking to get something signed and he said to me, ‘Excuse me mate….can you sign this?‘ I went completely ballistic with him.

Another factor in all this is that the culture of entitlement and grievance without any sense of personal responsibility, that is now seen across wider society, has also infected the police service.

This means that challenging bad behaviour, sloppy work or laziness almost inevitably results in some sort of formal grievance, allegations of bullying or repeated periods of sickness and absenteeism.

The systems in place for getting rid of lazy or unprofessional police officers are bureaucratic, time-consuming and ineffectual. My own experience of trying to put officers through that process resulted in nothing but countless hours of wasted time, frustration and massive stress, with nil outcome. This encourages other lazy officers who see that there is almost nothing that the organisation can do to get rid of them. The ‘problem children’ just get moved somewhere, so that they become someone else’s headache.

In fairness to younger police officers, they were completely shafted by David Cameron and Theresa May, who ripped up the moral contract between the State and policing; a contract that said ‘If you do the dangerous, stressful and unpleasant job that very few other people would want to do, we will look after you’.

So what’s to be done?

I have no desire to see officers put back in old-style serge trousers that swelled up like cotton wool when they got wet, or long greatcoats that made it almost impossible to run. However, there must be a greater balance between practicality and a smart appearance if the police service wants to be taken seriously by the public.

There is a quid quo pro at play here. If police officers look the part and present a confident, smart, professional appearance, then they can expect greater levels of public respect and trust. However, if they walk about looking (as my father would have said) like eight pounds of shit in a ten-pound bag, no-one is going to respect them.

The uniform needs to combine smartness and practicality, and there needs to be a national police uniform mandated. By all means each force can have its own local badge, but if you see a police officer patrolling in Devon, they should look exactly like a police officer patrolling in Newcastle. The organisation is fragmented enough, with every force using different systems and with different ways of doing everything. At least if everyone looked the same, there would be the illusion of national consistency! It would also enable the service to procure once and get better value for money from suppliers.

Let’s also have a grownup conversation about these dreadful hi-vis jackets. They look absolutely awful, particularly once they get grimy. The only exception should be for officers on traffic duty or public order.

They are also pointless if you want to do any proactive policing, something that seems to have been another casualty of austerity. You can’t sneak up on someone in a hi-vis jacket!

Traditional, custodian helmets should be worn outside at all times. They may not be the most practical thing in the world, but they are the most iconic and reassuring symbol of British policing. Men should either be clean-shaven or have full beards. If they want to grow a beard, they should grow it when they’re on holiday. I know that tattoos are a very sensitive subject, and very common in this day and age, but I do think that they should be covered up.

Sergeants: the PCs are not your mates. You can be friendly and approachable, but when the time comes to give someone a bollocking, you need to be able to do that with confidence.

The police is a disciplined service. Allowing people to wander around with their hands in their pockets and without their hats on is no good for anyone. If you want the respect of the public you need to show that you deserve that respect, and with a smart appearance, you’re half way there.

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