Friday, June 22, 2018
Public safety

Policing police fashion: Cops go khaki for the right reasons at RNC

So Tampa police plan to swap those dark, serious uniforms of theirs for a lighter khaki version when the Republican National Convention hits town in August.

In fact, August is the official reason for the costume change, which will include officers from other agencies working the event. When you're talking long shifts under a sweltering summer sun, tan khaki cotton makes infinitely better sense than Tampa's current polyester police uniforms so midnight blue you would swear they were black.

Besides those practical weather-related concerns, there's also image to consider, given this sure-to-be contentious, world stage event. There's what a uniform conveys when an officer and a civilian meet, and how it could even affect what happens next.

When I first got to town, rank-and-file Tampa cops sported short-sleeve, nearly powder blue shirts, now as old-fangled as the Bucs' creamsicle orange. It was a friendly cop look, though not so much that you worried their bullets might be tucked in their front pockets instead of in their actual guns.

The dramatically different midnight blue uniforms proposed in 1996 were not without controversy. Reporters asked about the more intimidating look and whether it might be uncomfortably close to how those Los Angeles police officers looked in that infamous video of Rodney King taking a beating.

Here is what then-police spokesman Steve Cole had to say about that:

"I guess we could put all our officers in pink uniforms with tutus and ballet slippers and that would be less intimidating. … I don't think we're looking for something intimidating, just something that looks sharp."

Sharp, yes, but with a different message.

Fast-forward to the upcoming RNC in a hot election year, with officials working on everything from high-level security to a current complaint about calling the surrounding area the "Clean Zone."

"That implies that the First Amendment is dirty, that peaceful protesting is somehow dirty, and we've got to clean it up," says John Dingfelder, former City Council member and now an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Words are symbolic, he says. Uniforms can be, too.

Assistant police Chief John Bennett gave three really good reasons for going khaki: First, the comfort and safety of police working outside in summer. Second, uniformity, with every officer recognizable as part of one police force, no matter what agency they're from.

And, yes: Image and public perception, too.

"The lighter color does look friendlier, less tactical," Bennett says.

So points to police for that wardrobe detail. Even the ACLU gives it a thumbs-up.

For fun (if talk of politicians and anarchists can be fun) there's this:

At an economic forum attended by world leaders in Honolulu last year, some police officers working crowd control actually wore aloha shirts. In that spirit, Dingfelder suggested Tampa cops don guayaberas, those breezy tropical tops that button up and hang loose.

Professional-looking uniforms in friendlier khaki? Yes. Guayaberas? No, Bennett says.

"It's pretty important," he says, "that we tuck our shirts in."

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