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The impact of uniform color on police perception

Jun 10, 2024 | Public Safety

AILEEN’S UNIFORM ATLAS
The Pulse is pleased to introduce Aileen’s Uniform Atlas, a new recurring feature written by Aileen Out.
Out is the owner of Prettybusiness, a news blog in the Netherlands that focuses exclusively on work clothing.


We all know that the color you wear influences how you are perceived. Some colors make you appear powerful, while others can make you seem gentle. This phenomenon of course becomes especially important when public safety, especially law enforcement uniforms are considered. Luckily, there is professional, documented evidence on the topic.

The Officer in Dark Blue

Ernest Nickels, a professor of criminal justice at The State University of New York (SUNY, Oswego), conducted research on how students perceive officers based on the color they wear. His findings show that officers in dark uniforms are perceived as friendlier, better, and more honest than those in light uniforms. The researchers believe this is because daily law enforcement often wear black or dark blue, while soldiers are often dressed in colors like khaki, green, and white. Lighter colors are associated with war, which evokes negative feelings in people.

But according to Richard R. Johnson, former military police officer and researcher in the field of interaction between police and citizens, it is not wise for an officer to wear a black uniform. His research indicates that this color can evoke negative emotions, making citizens more likely to behave aggressively, which in turn requires the officer to respond more forcefully. Johnson’s study suggests that officers should wear a light blue shirt with dark blue pants. This combination is commonly seen because blue tends to evoke feelings of calm and serenity.

Additionally, we are accustomed to this color scheme, as officers have been wearing it for years. This tradition dates back to 1854 when New York officers were the first in America to receive uniforms. At that time, officers were not too pleased with the uniforms, fearing they would be ridiculed on the streets.

The Purpose of the Uniform

Nowadays a police uniform is much more than just a set of clothes. The clothing can fulfill many functions. The uniform can protect the officer from harm, radiate authority or provide a level of trust so that the public finds the officer approachable. The best color depends on the intended purpose of the uniform.

In the United States, there are increasing trials where officers wear simple or even no uniforms at all, aiming to appear more friendly. Meanwhile, officers in Belgium want to project more authority, feeling they receive insufficient respect from citizens.

When the new Belgian police uniform design leaked in the news in 2023, the color choice was not surprising. The new uniform is predominantly dark blue, combined with reflective and fluorescent yellow elements. This outfit, according to Belgian police chief Nicholas Paelinck, commands respect. Whether this will be effective remains to be seen, as multiple factors play a role in such perceptions. However, it is scientifically proven that clothing has an impact, so it’s worth a try. Want to know more about this? Next week, I will discuss the new Belgian police uniform in my column.

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