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Does a police dress code matter?

October 17, 2012

By Alistair Harkness

There has been considerable discussion over the past decade regarding Victoria Police members’ appearance, uniforms and grooming. Former Chief Commissioner Christine Nixon relaxed standards during her stewardship of the force, but current chief Ken Lay is intent on reversing these changes. In the 21st century, is appearance important?

Take a moment and think, for example, back to the images of the capture of Ned Kelly. The police hunt for Ned and Dan Kelly was intense, and in late October 1878 , two police parties were searching for the Kelly brothers – one of which, led by Sergeant Kennedy, with Constables Lonigan, Scanlon and McIntyre, “wore no uniforms but all were heavily armed” as they headed for Stringybark Creek. Common for troopers at the time were long beards and uniforms – when worn – typical of the quasi-military nature of Australian police forces in the 19th century, which had not hitherto adopted all of Robert Peel’s modernisations. Highly centralised, increasingly bureaucratic and rigidly disciplined, Australian state police forces related to the rough and tumble nature of Australia’s early European settlement with a sparsely populated country in its settlement infancy.

So much has changed since this era. Under the leadership of Nixon, police dress was relaxed  to not necessitate the wearing of ties; grooming standards were altered to include the wearing of beards and baseball caps; and Muslim officers could wear traditional hajibs.

In the post-war period of the middle of last century, when the Beatles were criticised for hair length to their collars, attitudes had changed considerably – and in line with a more austere outlook police officers’ appearance reflected community sentiment.

In recent months, there has been a move to restore dress and appearance requirements to a mid 20th century standard. The banning of beards and ponytails has caused some consternation by a small group of members, citing it a breach of human rights conditions.  Taking effect on 1 January 2012, such accoutrements to personal appearance have been restricted under Mr Lay’s leadership, and this opposition was supported by National Party leader and Police Minister Peter Ryan.  In his second reading speech on the Police and Emergency Management Legislation Amendment Bill 2012, the minister observed that: “It is considered, for example, that facial hair and long hair in male members results in diminishing public trust in police.”

“Beards are back”, according to a number if people interviewed for a November 2011 article in the Australian Financial Review. But in Victoria, tattoos for police officers are on the way out and New York style dark navy police uniforms will soon replace the existing pale blue uniform. New South Wales police also appear to be following this lead.

“Clothing maketh the man” and appearances count, according to an age old expression. Police members place a great deal of import on comfort, to assist them in doing their job efficiently and effectively unhindered by unnecessary formality. According to acting deputy commissioner Lucinda Nolan, the existing sky blue uniforms are impractical but, while the new, planned uniform will resemble that of the NYPD, this was not an intention. However, a push by the Victorian Liberal/National Coalition government for zero tolerance policing practices  combined with a tough on crime rhetoric indicates that uniform changes in line with the NYPD may not be based solely on practicability and comfort alone but rather on projecting ‘tough on crime’ imagery.

Does appearance garner respect and portray respectability and authority – or does it not matter much? Walk into a 21st century retail store or a bank, and you won’t necessarily find the sales assistant or teller sporting a suit and tie. Dress standards for school teachers differ greatly, too, with many school principles relaxed about the dress code of teachers, for example.

In a much more relaxed modern era, when many occupations allow facial hair including beards, handlebar moustaches, mutton chops and goatees, ponytails, wearing of jewellery; and where female workers can wear make-up and nail polish that is not in natural tones, should standards of dress be any different for those charged with the responsibility to serve and uphold the law compared with other occupations?

From → Policing

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