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The Psychological Influence of the Police Uniform.

Most people can identify law enforcement officers by their official police uniform. When citizens on a busy street need help, they scan the crowd of pedestrians looking for the distinctive uniform of a police officer. Normally, drivers who arrive at an intersection and find a person in a police uniform directing traffic willingly submit to that person's hand directions. Criminals usually curb their unlawful behavior when they spot a uniformed police officer. Many parents teach their children to respect and trust a person in police attire. Police academy recruits relish the day when they finally wear their official uniforms.

The crisp uniform of the police officer conveys power and authority. When officers put on their uniforms, citizens believe that they embody stereotypes about all police officers. Research has suggested that clothing has a powerful impact on how people perceive each other. The police officer's uniform has a profound psychological impact on others, and even slight alterations to the style of the uniform may change how citizens perceive them.

The police uniform represents a tradition as old as the field of law enforcement. In 1829, the London Metropolitan Police, the first modem police force, developed standard police apparel. These first police officers, the famous "Bobbies" of London, wore a dark blue, paramilitary-style uniform. The color blue helped to distinguish the police from the British military, who wore red and white uniforms. In 1845, the city of New York established the first official police force in the United States. Based on the London police, the New York City Police Department adopted the dark blue uniform in 1853. Other cities, such as Philadelphia, Boston, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Buffalo, and Detroit, quickly followed by establishing police departments based on the London model and included the adoption of the dark blue, paramilitary-style uniform. [1]

Today, most U.S. law enforcement agencies continue to select police uniforms generally dark in color with a paramilitary appearance. Agencies may prefer dark colors for their ease in cleaning and their ability to help conceal the wearer m tactical situations. Dark colors help hide stains and keep officers hidden from criminals, especially at night. [2] However, why do most agencies insist that patrol officers dress in uniforms? Perhaps, the uniform actually psychologically influences the public's perception of officers.

The Social Significance of Clothing

Individuals seek clues about others from their appearance. Clothing provides one powerful clue to an individual's background [3] and serves as a mental shortcut to identify a person's sex, status, group membership, legitimacy, authority, and occupation. Clothing and physical appearance are important in the initial development of social relationships. [4] Studies have revealed that physical appearance, including clothing, remains the factor used most often in developing a first impression of someone [5] and has an even greater effect than personality. [6]

In early social interactions, clothing has a significant psychological influence on people's perceptions. In one study, personnel administrators rated the competency of similar female job applicants. They consistently rated the women in conservative, slightly masculine attire as the most competent. [7] In another experiment, both high school students and teachers rated pictures of female athletes dressed either in uniforms or casual clothes. Participants perceived all of the athletes in uniform as being more professional, possessing higher ability, and having more team spirit. [8] Similarly, other research revealed that both students and teachers rated photos of students dressed in private school-type uniforms as having higher scholastic ability. [9]

Additionally, the uniform worn by a police officer elicits stereotypes about that person's status, authority, attitudes, and motivations. The police uniform identifies a person with powers to arrest and use force and establishes order and conformity within the ranks of those who wear it by suppressing individuality. [10] The police uniform can have extraordinary psychological and physical impact. Depending on the background of the citizen, the police uniform can elicit emotions ranging from pride and respect, to fear and anger.

The Power of the Police Uniform

Research has supported suggestions about the police uniform's power and authority. In one study, individuals ranked 25 different occupational uniforms by several categories of feelings. The test subjects consistently ranked the police uniform as the one most likely to induce feelings of safety. [11] In another experiment, participants consistently rated models as more competent, reliable, intelligent, and helpful when pictured in a police uniform, rather than in casual clothes. [12] When an individual wearing a police-style uniform stood on a sidewalk near a corner, drivers committed fewer turn violations at that intersection. This occurred even though the uniform did not represent a real police department in the area, and the individual did not display a badge or weapon. [13]

In one experiment to test the power of the police uniform, a research assistant randomly approached pedestrians on a city street and ordered them to either pick up a paper bag, give a dime to another person, or step back from a bus stop. [14] The research assistant alternately wore casual clothes, a milk delivery uniform, or a grey, police-style uniform bearing a badge but lacking weapons. Only the police-style uniform resulted in a high rate of cooperation from citizens. Moreover, obedience to the police-style uniform usually continued even after the research assistant quickly walked away and did not watch to ensure compliance. [15]

Changes in the Uniform Style

Although the police uniform in general suggests the authority of the wearer, details about a police officer's uniform, such as the style of hat or the tailoring, can influence the level of authority emanating from the officer. Study participants in one experiment evaluated photographs of uniformed male and female police officers wearing nine different styles of head gear, including no hat at all. Even though psychological tests showed that participants perceived the officers to have authority under all of the circumstances, the type of hat varied the level of authority attributed to the officer. The traditional "bus driver" garrison cap and the "smoky bear" campaign hat conveyed more authority than the baseball cap or no hat at all. [16]

Many studies have addressed the influence of eliminating the paramilitary style of the police uniform. In one experiment, students viewed black and white drawings of three styles of police uniforms. Two of the uniforms represented a traditional paramilitary style, but lacked a duty belt or weapons. The third, nontraditional uniform consisted of a sport coat, or blazer, over slacks and a shirt with a tie. Although students ranked all three uniforms similarly for objectivity and trustworthiness, the blazer-style uniform ranked slightly higher for professionalism. [17] However, a similar experiment using color photos found the traditional, paramilitary style uniforms ranked as more honest, good, helpful, and competent than the blazer uniform. [18]

In 1969, the Menlo Park, California, Police Department discontinued their traditional navy blue, paramilitary-style uniforms and adopted a nontraditional uniform hoping to improve police-community relations. The new, nontraditional uniform consisted of a forest green blazer worn over black slacks, a white shirt, and a black tie. Officers displayed their badges on the blazer and concealed their weapons under the coat. [19] When other agencies heard about Menlo Park's attempt, over 400 other police departments in the United States also experimented with a blazer-style uniform. [20]

After wearing the new uniforms for 18 months, the Menlo Park police officers displayed fewer authoritarian characteristics on psychological tests when compared to officers in the surrounding jurisdictions. [21] Also, after wearing the uniforms for over a year, assaults on the Menlo Park police decreased by 30 percent and injuries to civilians by the police dropped 50 percent. Originally, the department thought the uniform changes resulted in these decreased rates, but other variables factored in at the same time. The number of college-educated officers in the department increased dramatically and the agency abolished its traditional autocratic management style during this same time period. [22]

In 1977, after using the blazer-style uniform for 8 years, the Menlo Park Police Department determined that it did not command respect; therefore, they returned to a traditional, paramilitary-style uniform. A final evaluation showed that, although assaults on officers had dropped during the first 18 months of the new uniform implementation, the number of assaults steadily began to rise again until it doubled the amount of the year before the uniform change occurred. During the 4 years after the Menlo Park police returned to a traditional uniform, the number of assaults on their officers dropped steadily. [23]

Experiments with hats and the style of the police uniform suggest that changes in the design of a police uniform can have an effect on the perceived authority, power, and ability to control. Does the color of the uniform psychologically influence the people who view it and have an effect on the officer wearing the uniform as well?

The Influences of Color

Many police departments in the United States use darker colors for their uniforms, such as black, blue, brown, green, or grey. Just as with the style of the police uniform, the color of the uniform also has meaning. Psychological tests have found that individuals associate colors with specific moods. For example, people generally associate red with excitement and stimulation, which explains why agencies often use it for flashing emergency vehicle lights. These tests also have found that individuals associate the color blue with feelings of security and comfort and the color black with power and strength. [24]

Studies of both U.S. high school and college students have found that students perceived light colors, such as white and yellow, as weak, but also as good and active. The same students perceived dark colors, such as black and brown, as strong and passive, but also as bad. Cultural influences did not affect these results, which did not vary with the race of the students. [25]

People in Europe, Western Asia, Central Africa, and the Middle East had similar perceptions of colors. Across all cultures studied, people consistently associated light colors with goodness and weakness and dark colors as strong, but evil. [26] On psychological inventories, test subjects rated lighter colors as more pleasant and less dominant. Dark colors, on the other hand, elicited emotions of anger, hostility, dominance, and aggression. [27]

Color has a considerable impact on clothing and perceptions of the wearer. When people rated pictures of models for attractiveness, clothing color appeared the most common determinant. [28] Individuals perceived job applicants wearing dark business suits as more powerful and competent than those who wore lighter colored suits. [29] Another interesting study found that referees who viewed several videotaped plays of a football game more likely assessed stiffer penalties against a football team wearing a black uniform than against a team wearing a brightly colored uniform. The referees consistently perceived the team in black as more aggressive. An analysis of all professional football and hockey teams in the United States, which found that teams in darker uniforms received far more penalties for roughness than teams in lighter uniforms, supported this experiment. Again, these results suggest that referees negatively perceive teams in darker uniforms. [30]

Moreover, experiments have suggested that athletes act more aggressively when dressed in dark colors. One researcher asked college students dressed in black jerseys and grouped into teams of five to rank which sports they would most like to play. The students consistently ranked the most aggressive sports, such as football and rugby, at the top of the list. A new group of students dressed in white jerseys repeated the experiment. This time, the students selected less aggressive sports, such as baseball or basketball. [31]

Applying the results of these studies in color to the police uniform suggests that darker police uniforms may send negative subconscious signals to citizens. A dark police uniform may subconsciously encourage citizens to perceive officers as aggressive, evil, or corrupt and send a negative message to the community. The experiment with the colored jerseys also suggests that police officers in dark uniforms subconsciously may act more aggressively; therefore, departments should consider modifying police uniform colors.

In one experiment, researchers presented subjects with color photos of two traditional paramilitary-style uniforms. One of the uniforms consisted of the dark navy blue shirt and pants commonly worn by municipal police agencies today. The other traditional uniform resembled that of California sheriff's deputies, consisting of a khaki shirt and dark green pants. Although subjects ranked both uniforms similarly as good, honest, helpful, and competent, the lighter colored sheriff's uniform rated noticeably higher for warmth and friendliness. Because the sheriff's uniform only has a light colored shirt, with the pants still very dark, [32] a half dark uniform sends a better message than the all dark blue or black uniform.

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. Because of citizens' negative psychological perception of dark colors, they may perceive a police officer in a negative manner partly because of the officer's uniform color. If referees believe athletes wearing black exhibit more aggressive behavior, citizens might perceive officers in black uniforms as more aggressive than those wearing lighter colored uniforms.

Officer Safety Concerns

The police uniform also may influence the safety level of the officer who wears it. Dark colored uniforms may elicit subconscious negative feelings from citizens, who may perceive the officer as aggressive, and subsequently, encourage them to consider violent action when confronted by the police.

In addition to the color, the condition of a police officer's uniform and equipment also can have an impact on the officer's safety. Interviews with prison inmates who have murdered police officers indicate that the killers often visually "sized up" the officer before deciding to use violence. If the officer looked or acted "unprofessional" in the assailant's eyes, then the assailant felt capable of successfully resisting the officer. A dirty or wrinkled uniform or a badly worn duty belt may convey to suspects that officers have complacent attitudes about their job. This complacency can invite violence. [33]

In many situations involving the use of force, the fact that a police officer has a distinguishable uniform can help prevent the officer's injury or death. An officer in plainclothes risks harm by citizens and other officers as a result of misidentification. In certain scenarios, almost all police officers immediately would draw their weapon on people wearing jeans and a T-shirt and carrying a gun in their hand. A plainclothes officer chasing a burglary suspect through backyards at night risks being shot by a home owner who believes the officer is a criminal. The uniform helps both citizens and fellow police officers identify the wearer as having a legitimate purpose for trespassing, using force, or carrying a weapon. [34]


The uniform of a police officer conveys the power and authority of the person wearing it. Research has shown that clothing, including the police uniform, has a powerful psychological impact. When individuals come into contact with each other, they subconsciously search for clues about the other person to understand the context of the encounter. The police uniform represents a powerful clue to the wearer's authority, capability, and status.

Additionally, research has revealed that the uniform has a subconscious psychological influence on people, based on the person's preconceived feelings about police officers. Citizens in the presence of a person in a police uniform cooperate more and curb their illegal or deviant behaviors.

Alterations to the traditional, paramilitary police uniform can result in changes in public perceptions. The style of the clothes, the type of hat worn, the color of the material, and even the condition of the clothes and equipment have an influence on how citizens perceive officers. For these reasons, police administrators seriously should consider their uniform policies. Selecting a uniform style, following regulations on properly wearing the uniform, maintaining uniforms, and designing policies to address when officers may wear plainclothes should command serious attention from department managers. After all, the uniform stands as one of the most important visual representations of the law enforcement profession.

Mr. Johnson, formerly an Indiana State Trooper and a military police officer, is an investigator with the Kane County, Illinois, State's Attorney Office and a criminal justice professor at Waubonsee Community College, Sugar Grove, Illinois.


(1.) L. M. Friedman, Crime and Punishment in American History (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1993); and C. D. Uchida "The Development of the American Police: An Historical Overview," in Critical Issues in Policing, 2d ed., eds. R. Dunham and G. Alpert (Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland, 1993).

(2.) E. W. Grosskopf, "The Role of Police Uniforms," Law and Order, August 1982, 27-29.

(3.) D. G. Myers, Social Psychology, 4th Edition (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 1993), 186-217.

(4.) N. Joseph and N. Alex, "The Uniform: A Sociological Perspective," American Journal of Sociology 77 (1972): 719-730; S. B. Kaiser The Social Psychology of Clothing (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1985); L. Shaw, "The Role of Clothing in the Criminal Justice System," Journal of Police Science and Administration 1 (1973): 414-420.

(5.) S. J. Lennon and L. L. Davis, "Categorization in First Impressions," The Journal of Psychology 123 (1989): 439-446.

(6.) B. Connor, K. Peters, and R. Nagasawa, "Person and Costume: Effects on the Formation of First Impressions," Home Economics Research Journal 4 (1975): 32-41.

(7.) S. Forsythe, M. Drake, and C. Cox, "Influence of Applicant's Dress on Interviewer's Selection Decisions," Journal of Applied Psychology 70 (1985): 374-378.

(8.) M. Harris, S. Ramsey, D. Sims, and M. Stevenson, "Effects of Uniforms on Perceptions of Pictures of Athletes," Perceptual and Motor Skills 39 (1974): 59-62.

(9.) D. Behling, "School Uniforms and Personal Perception," Perceptual and Motor Skills 79 (1994): 723-729.

(10.) Supra notes 2 and 4 (Joseph and Alex; Shaw).

(11.) S. Balkin and P. Houlden, "Reducing Fear of Crime Through Occupational Presence," Criminal Justice and Behavior 10 (1983):13-33.

(12.) M. Singer and A. Singer, "The Effect of Police Uniforms on Interpersonal Perception," The Journal of Psychology 119 (1985):157-161.

(13.) C. Sigelman and L. Sigelman, "Authority and Conformity: Violation of a Traffic Regulation," Journal of Social Psychology 100 (1976): 35-43.

(14.) This experiment was conducted by psychologist Dr. Leonard Bickman.

(15.) L. Bickman, "The Social Power of the Uniform," Journal of Applied Social Psychology 4(1974): 47-61.

(16.) J. Volpp and S. Lennon, "Perceived Police Authority as a Function of Uniform Hat and Sex," Perceptual and Motor Skills 67 (1988): 815-824.

(17.) D. F. Gundersen, "Credibility and the Police Uniform," Journal of Police Science and Administration 15 (1987): 192-195.

(18.) R. Mauro, "The Constable's New Clothes: Effects of Uniforms on Perceptions and Problems of Police Officers," Journal of Applied Psychology 14(1984): 42-56.

(19.) J. Tenzel and V. Cizanckas, "The Uniform Experiment," Journal of Police Science andAdministration 1(1973): 421-424.

(20.) J. Tenzel, L. Storms, and H. Sweetwood, "Symbols and Behavior: An Experiment in Altering the Police Role," Journal of Police Science and Administration 4 (1976): 21-27.

(21.) Supra note 19.

(22.) Supra notes 18, 19, and 20.

(23.) Supra note 18.

(24.) M. Luscher and I. Scott, The Luscher Color Test (New York, NY: Washington Square Press, 1969); L. B. Wexner, "The Degrees to Which Colors Are Associated with Mood-tones," Journal of Applied Psychology 38 (1954): 432-435.

(25.) J. Williams, "Connotations of Color Names Among Negroes and Caucasians," Perceptual and Motor Skills 18(1964): 721-731; J. Williams and C. McMurty, "Color Connotations among Caucasian Seventh Graders and College Students," Perceptual and Motor Skills 30(1970): 707-713.

(26.) Supra note 24 (Luscher and Scott); F. Adams and C. Osgood, "A Cross-cultural Study of the Affective Meanings of Color," Journal of Cross-cultural Psychology 4 (1973): 135-156; J. Williams, J. Moreland, and W. Underwood, "Connotations of Color Names in the U.S., Europe, and Asia," Journal of Social Psychology 82 (1970): 3-14.

(27.) P. Valdez and A. Mehrabian, "Effects of Color on Emotion," Journal of Experimental Psychology. General 123 (1994): 394-409

(28.) D. J. Radeloff, "Role of Color in Perception of Attractiveness," Perceptual and Motor Skills 70(1990): 151-160.

(29.) M. Damhorst and J. Reed, "Clothing Color Value and Facial Expression: Effects on Evaluations of Female Job Applicants," Social Behavior and Personality 14(1986): 89-98.

(30.) M. Frank and T. Gilovich, "The Darker Side of Self- and Social Perception: Black Uniforms and Aggression in Professional Sports," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 54 (1988): 74-85.

(31.) Ibid.

(32.) Supra note 18.

(33.) R. Adams, T. McTernan, and C. Remsberg, Street Survival: Tactics for Armed Encounters (Northbrook, IL: Calibre Press, 1980); A. Pinizzotto & E. Davis, "Cop Killers and Their Victims." FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin (December, 1992): 9-11; C. Remsberg, The Tactical Edge: Surviving High-Risk Patrol (Northbrook, IL: Calibre Press, 1986).

(34.) Ibid.
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Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2001
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