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Honey, Does This Uniform Make Me Look Mean?

Everyone knows the good guys wear white. Imagine the Lone Ranger riding up on a black horse…wearing a black hat? Forget it. But are these images just creations of Hollywood movie makers, or is the human brain hardwired to associate certain behaviors with certain colors?

Studies conducted across many cultures in North America, Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East conclude that the color white is associated with good and the color black is associated with evil. Lighter colors are viewed as more pleasant, whereas darker colors conjure thoughts of anger, hostility and aggression. Most hospital rooms are painted in lighter colors because of the pleasurable feelings they generate.

Studies have shown that referees assess more penalties for the same violations to hockey or football players wearing darker colored uniforms than to players in lighter uniforms. In another study, subjects were shown the exact same altercation; the only thing different was the color of the aggressor's clothes. The aggressor wearing black was consistently rated as more threatening, more aggressive and more evil. What are the implications for law enforcement if dark colored clothes are viewed in this negative, hostile light?

The majority of police uniforms in the United States are darker colors--black, navy blue, brown etc. It is believed a darker uniform is more authoritative and more tactical. Darker uniforms are also easier to clean and hide dirt better. But what if the dark uniforms are making it more difficult for officers to do their job by promoting negative images and creating anxiety among citizens?

Is clothing important? Clothing has been found to impact the performance of athletes, students and job applicants. Clothing also affects the wearer's self-perception and moods. We, as officers, use clothing as a shortcut to draw conclusions about a subject's gender, socio-economic status, line of work, and membership in a gang. Experienced officers know to get a full body picture of a suspect as soon as possible after the arrest--you know he is not going to look and dress like that on his trial date.

Studies have shown that a police officer's uniform conveys impressions of safety, competence, reliability and intelligence. The police uniform has been shown to have an effect on people's behavior and the likelihood they will commit motor vehicle offenses. With the importance of the police uniform understood and the implications of different color schemes stated, Richard R. Johnson of the University of Cincinnati set out to determine what police uniform color combinations produced the most positive and the most negative impressions on citizens.

He conducted the study in a large shopping mall in a Midwest community of about 120,000 people. Participants in the study were shown 8 inch by 10 inch color photos of a police uniform color scheme. The uniforms were laid out against a plain background; the only difference in the pictures was the color scheme of the uniforms. Uniform 1 was a light blue shirt and navy blue pants typically worn by police in Chicago, Philadelphia, Houston and Kansas City. Uniform 2 was a white shirt and black pants typically worn by police in Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio. Uniform 3 is the most common police uniform in the United States; a black shirt and black pants typically worn by police in New York City, Indianapolis, Miami and Atlanta. Uniform 4 was a khaki shirt and khaki pants typically worn by police in Las Vegas and Wichita. The participants were asked to grade the uniforms on a scale of 1 to 5 in areas of good/bad, nice/mean, warm/cold, gentle/forceful, friendly/unfriendly, passive/aggressive and honest/corrupt.

The combination of the light blue shirt over the navy blue pants (Chicago, Philadelphia etc) was viewed most favorably in all seven categories. This uniform was judged as the least mean, the least forceful, the least cold and the least aggressive. The black shirt/black pants combination (the most common police uniform) was viewed least favorably in six of the seven categories. This uniform was perceived to be cold, corrupt, forceful, unfriendly and aggressive.

What are the implications for the cop on the street? If the dark uniform subconsciously creates negative images in citizens, police are starting out from a position of disadvantage in any street encounter. It will be more difficult to gain citizen trust and cooperation. The community has subconsciously formulated a negative opinion of the officer prior to any interaction. If the officer is dealing with an emotionally disturbed person or a highly agitated subject, the color of his uniform may exacerbate aggressive feelings.

The officer on the street has enough obstacles to overcome. Constantly entering unknown situations with unknown persons is trying enough. Police administrators should consider the implications of the color scheme of the uniform. First, ask why does the department use this color scheme? Is it based on sound law enforcement experience and research, or is it just a tradition no one wants to break? Second, is the uniform helping or hurting the officer in doing his job? If the job is to create a positive public image and promote community support, the color scheme of the uniform may be impeding the officer from successfully doing his job.

Editor's notes:
  1. We know that the NYPD wears blue, not black uniforms, but the author of the study referenced by Detective Petrocelli indicated that the uniforms were black, so we kept the reference in context.
  2. Dr. Johnson's study was published in the
Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, which maintains its archives online. However, the issue containing Dr. Johnson's article is not expected to be available online until January 2007. In the meantime, some academic libraries may have it in their periodical collections.