PHOENIX, AZ – Phoenix police Chief Daniel V. Garcia is instituting a stricter dress code for patrol officers, setting off a debate within the department over whether comfort or appearance makes for safer policing.
Garcia has ordered that beginning Oct. 1, the department’s 2,500 patrol officers must wear only their polyester-blend uniforms with dark-blue button-down shirts and dress-style pants.
The black, cotton-blend polo shirt and cargo pants that patrol officers have had the option of wearing for the past 15 years will no longer be allowed. But uniforms for specialty units such as canine, motorcycle and SWAT will remain unchanged.
Garcia, whose order comes after five months on the job, has said the use of two patrol uniforms has the potential to create confusion and offers greater opportunity for criminals to impersonate officers. He cited a growing number of home-invasion robberies and fake traffic stops carried out by criminals wearing versions of the less-formal patrol uniform.
The traditional uniforms, which the department calls its Class C uniforms, are more readily recognizable, the chief says, making police and the public safer.
“Whether officers are patrolling neighborhoods, conducting subject and traffic stops, or answering calls for service at private residences, our officers’ presence should not be questioned because of a uniform type,” Garcia said in a written response to questions from The Arizona Republic.
But officers are challenging the order and questioning the chief’s reasoning, saying their cotton-blend, or Class D, uniforms are cooler and more comfortable, preserving officers’ strength as they work in the heat. The uniforms also make it easier to carry their gear, which weighs at the least 21 pounds.
“Having polyester pants and shirts, although they look nice, it’s more draining on the body throughout the day,” patrol Officer Robert Warren said.
Ken Crane, Phoenix Law Enforcement Association vice president and grievance chairman, said the blue uniforms are more suited to office work or special events, like parades, funerals or awards ceremonies. Crane estimates that three-fourths of the officers on patrol duty either exclusively wear the black uniform or switch between the two.
“If you are working in 110- and 115-degree heat, do you want to work in a uniform that is more suited for a utilitarian application or work the streets in what essentially amounts to dress clothes?” he said.
The officers are challenging whether Garcia’s order can be carried out.
The association, which represents 2,200 active-duty officers, says the chief cannot arbitrarily change the dress code. More than 100 officers have filed a complaint with the city, arguing that Garcia has violated a 1998 labor agreement that allowed officers to choose which uniform to wear.
Police Department spokesman Trent Crump said it is inappropriate for the chief to respond to the union’s criticism through the media while the complaint is pending. Garcia is expected to issue a written response to the grievance on Tuesday, Crump said.
The union officials said if the chief proceeds with the ban or if an agreement can’t be reached, the union will meet with the city labor-relations administrator and if necessary will go to an independent arbitrator.
Cost and comfort
Officers opposed to Garcia’s order say the black uniforms make police work less taxing physically and financially.
The black uniform allows officers to use a lighter and more flexible nylon gun belt than the one required to be worn with the more formal blue uniform.
The black uniform also includes an approved vest carrier with mandatory body armor. Officers say this allows them to move radios and Tasers from their gun belt to vest pockets, better distributing weight and taking stress off the lower back.
The blue uniform’s heavier belt can cause lower back problems, officers said. “The bottom line with carrying all that weight is it can cause long-term debilitating injury when you do it day in and day out,” Crane said.
Part of the union’s objection to Garcia’s order is also the financial impact.
Each year, officers receive an allowance to buy clothing and equipment. This year’s is $1,150, which the union says equates to about $800 after taxes.
Officers are required to maintain at least one of the traditional blue uniforms.
Veteran officer Victor Escoto said he hasn’t worn the tailored-fit, blue uniform for most of his 21 years on the force unless it was for an interview, funeral or when the president comes to town.
Drawing on his uniform allowance, Escoto said he spent $500 for two sets of black uniforms, patches and repairs to existing uniforms. He also spent $500 for name tags, boots and gear like a handcuff case and magazine pouch. Now, he said, he is faced with spending more money to buy additional blue uniforms to comply with the chief’s new policy.
“When they start making these decisions, it starts impacting people’s wallets,” union President Joe Clure said.
Warren said the order would force him to spend money on uniforms instead of boots and other equipment.
“We have a system that is not broken and we are tying to fix it,” he said. “I think our resources are better spent in other areas.”
In arguing against the chief’s policy, Warren said police uniforms have evolved just as the weapons used by officers have evolved — from revolvers to semiautomatics and batons to Tasers.
“If I have to go after a bad guy or climb over a wall and fight with him, the polyester doesn’t give,” he said. “It’ll be more difficult to be able to move and do the things I need to do.”
Warren added that during his 20 years on the force, no one has ever questioned whether he was a police officer because of the uniform he was wearing.
William Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations, said the “trend in agencies across the country — not just in the hot areas but in other areas — is to go with the more relaxed but readily identifiable uniform.”
The group is a lobbying coalition of police unions and associations.
Johnson said that if the black uniforms used by Phoenix look like a police uniform, are functional for officers and clearly recognizable to the public, there shouldn’t be a problem with its continued use.
The fact that Phoenix officers have been wearing the black uniform for so many years means it shouldn’t be an issue, he said. “If the public is equally served either way, why not let officers be comfortable?” he said.
Addressing the chief’s concern, industry insiders say it’s not clear if banning the cargo pants and polo top will deter police impersonators.
Doug Wyllie, editor of PoliceOne.com, a San Francisco-based online resource for the law-enforcement community, said a person determined to masquerade as a cop “will go to great lengths to give the appearance of law enforcement.”
“My personal feelings are they are highly motivated individuals and aren’t put off by jumping through one more hoop,” he said.
From The Arizona Republic