When I imagine a policeman, I see in my mind something that probably has not existed during my lifetime, at least in any place I’ve lived: a man in a blue coat with brass buttons, shiny black shoes, and a peaked cap with a patent-leather bill. If he is armed, it is with a truncheon and, possibly, a sidearm. Specifically, what I see is an illustration from Peter Pat and the Policeman, a book I possessed as a small child about a boy who gets lost and, recognizing the iconic blue police uniform as an emblem of trust, is taken home by the local policeman. In reality, our police look much more like fictional characters who would command my attention a few years later: stormtroopers — not the kind who answer to Adolf Hitler, but the kind who answer to Darth Vader. The main difference is that the minions of the Galactic Empire subverted cinematic convention: They were bad guys who wore white.
The monumentalism of Nazi architecture and its mythical invocation of grand periods of time — from the mists of Teutonic legend to a Thousand-Year Reich — functioned in no small part to subsume the individual. “A fly lays a million eggs; they all die,” Spotts wrote. “But flies survive.” The black SS uniforms were at the same time modern and based on traditional Prussian models — not unlike National Socialism itself. The black uniforms, partly military and partly clerical, set SS officers apart from military tradition and invested them with a sense of mystery — and purpose. They remain objects of fascination (and fetish — as P. J. O’Rourke observed, “No one has ever had a fantasy about being tied to a bed and sexually ravished by someone dressed as a liberal”).
The old-style police uniform, whether that of the English bobby or his American counterpart, communicated a specific civic ethic. Both “bobby” and “peeler” are slang based on the name of Sir Robert Peel, who in 1829 organized the first modern police force, in London. (As prime minister, Peel would make history, and end his career, by repealing the Corn Laws, a red-letter event in the history of free trade.) Peel spelled out his famous Nine Principles of Policing, which are still in effect and still very wise.
In that context, the function of the police uniform is simply that of an imprimatur — of the municipal government of London or of New York or Mayberry. It tells little Peter Pat whom he can trust.
Our contemporary and increasingly militarized police uniforms are designed for a different purpose: the projection of force. Peel organized the Metropolitan Police as an alternative to “military repression,” but we, in turn, have turned our police into quasi-military organizations: Armored vehicles roam the mean streets of Pulaski County, Ind. Why? “It’s more intimidating,” the sheriff says. In New York City on Monday, I noted four police officers in battle helmets, carrying carbines, standing in front of Le Pain Quotidien on Park Avenue, perhaps expecting some particularly nasty muffin burglar. My subway stop, which is between City Hall and 1 Police Plaza, often resembles a military parade ground. (Not that they do anything about the vagrants camped out there.) Police in my hometown of Lubbock, Texas, occasionally go about their business in army-green armored vehicles and uniforms with woodland camouflage patterns, in spite of the fact that God never saw fit to put a tree within a hundred miles of there.
The different uniforms are meant for different kinds of policing: The traditional blue coat is for the policeman who walks a beat, and the ridiculous stormtrooper suits are for those who roll through in an MRAP.
Which sort of policing would you prefer?
People in places such as Ferguson, Mo., often talk about the police as though they were an occupying force, and there is, in Ferguson and in many other places, a strong racial component. During my time in Philadelphia, the city had a black mayor, a black police commissioner, and a heavily black police force, and the city’s worst crime was concentrated in two black neighborhoods. Police innovations such as sending extra patrols to schools at dismissal time were criticized by community leaders who complained that the police were “targeting” black neighborhoods. Which, of course, they were: That’s where the crime was. The police were of course in an impossible position: On the one hand, they were regarded as unwelcome intruders; on the other, they could not simply abandon those neighborhoods.
But they might seem a little bit less like an occupying force if they didn’t dress like one. If they weren’t armed like one. If they didn’t roll through like one. If they weren’t being told, and telling themselves, that they are “at war.”
And though I recognize that the police have a difficult task, they might also get a little more support from communities such as Ferguson if they were doing their job. Peel again: “Recognize always that the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, and not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.”
That sound like Ferguson, Mo., to you? Or Chicago? Or Detroit? Or Los Angeles?
Bring back the peelers. And bring back Peel, while you’re at it.
— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.