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When it comes to uniform and grooming standards, are we at the point of no return?

Attempts by the NYPD to reinstate stricter uniform and grooming standards has sparked a broader conversation about the role of appearance in law enforcement credibility


NYPD 52nd Precinct Police Officer in uniform showing his patch and camera in the Bronx on Oct. 19, 2020, in New York. (Luiz C. Ribeiro/New York Daily News/TNS)

Luiz C. Ribeiro/TNS

Years ago, I watched a documentary about underwater SCUBA cave diving. The filmmakers stressed the importance of divers knowing the risks as they ventured into the unfamiliar mass network of caves. Signs in the underwater caves warn divers about the “point of no return” and how they need to make sure they have enough air in the tank so they can get back to the caves’ entry points.

I believe we may be reaching the “point of no return” concerning certain aspects of policing, uniform and grooming standards among them.

In November 2014, I authored an article for Police1 titled “10 things that fuel negative police image among the public.” I identified what I considered as factors that fuel negative perceptions about law enforcement thus undermining overall effectiveness. Numbers 8 and 9 on the list read as follows:

8. Unsightly personal appearance: Beards, long mustaches, offensive tattoos, morbid obesity and any other element of unprofessional appearance create negative images. There’s a reason the police academy stresses clean appearances and good hygiene. Does the term “command presence” ring any bells?

9. Non-uniform uniforms: The word “uniform” loses meaning when departments allow officers to wear several variations of attire. Since when did baseball caps, BDUs, polo shirts, and drop-down leg-strapped holsters become acceptable uniforms?

When the article was published, I received some negative feedback from members of the profession. The criticisms said (paraphrased in my own words) that retired cops have no business telling active-duty cops what to wear and how to look. In essence, it was the “dinosaur” perspective.

Fast forward to the modern day. Over the past 10 years, the appearance and standards in many agencies across the country have deteriorated even far beyond what they were in 2014 when I wrote the article. But my attention was piqued last week when I saw that NYPD leadership was trying to “unring the bell” on the agency’s liberal uniform and grooming standards.

This article from the New York Daily News caught my attention: “NYPD to crack down on ‘sloppy’ cops with ban on shorts, white turtlenecks, cargo pants.” NYPD Inspector Paul Saraceno is quoted in this article as saying: “I believe that in every profession, if you take it seriously and you act professionally, you dress professionally, you present yourself the same way, it revolves around everything you do. If you’re not squared away, if you’re sloppy, it speaks to who you are. We expect professionalism in every aspect.” As you can well imagine, his words resonated with me as it was precisely the message I was trying to convey all those years ago.

I initiated a post with the article on the social media platform LinkedIn and started a discussion thread. The feedback was robust and, to my surprise, most who commented indicated they agreed that the uniform and grooming standards of the profession needed to be reined in. Some pushed back and said they felt there were more important issues to consider besides uniforms and appearance.

Here are a few excerpted comments:

  • “Command presence should still be a priority. Your people need to be fully supported while at the same time setting high standards in all areas.”
  • “Yes, it is called a uniform for a reason.”
  • “The number one thing is to always look professional.”
  • “These days it looks like anything goes with no real policy or enforcement of policy. Most likely this is a give in and an attempt to boost morale. Even in prison, prisoners respect physical fitness and how an inmate wears their clothing and presents themselves.”
  • “Firmly believe in command presence, but Adam-12 era uniforms are not conducive to modern day policing requirements. Proper workable uniforms with appropriate grooming and weight standards are the solution.”

The strongest opposition to NYPD’s directive came from the NYPD Union (PBA.) President Patrick Hendry, who “vowed to file a legal challenge to the new rules, predicting they would drive officers out of the the force.”

So, the gauntlet has been thrown down and the battle begins. Time will tell whether the revised regulations will take effect, but clearly, the lines in the sand are drawn.

So here is the challenge as I see it. The policing profession is in an unmitigated crisis trying to recruit and retain qualified people. If officers prioritize relaxed standards as a key employment factor, agencies that enforce stricter guidelines may risk losing personnel to those with more lenient policies. In other words, it may be too late to address this issue. That would be unfortunate as many of us still believe in the importance of appearance and its overall impact on the effectiveness of officers.

Sir Robert Peel must be, as the saying goes, “rolling over in his grave.”

What do you think? Email your opinion to Read more on the issue here: State your case: Should the NYPD return to traditional uniform and grooming standards?

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Police1 readers respond

  • When the original article was written in 2014, we as a police force in the United States, were not suffering the police staffing shortfalls that we face in 2024. The times change regarding what the public sees as acceptable, especially when it comes to police uniforms and grooming standards. With the ending of the Global War on Terror, many agencies reached out to military veterans to help fill these national vacancies. Agencies are hard-pressed to fill gaps in critical staffing shortages. What agencies have found is that many of these veterans already have tattoos that would normally deny them a job in the law enforcement sector. However, they otherwise are excellent candidates to fill a role as officers after their military commitment is up. Many agencies have also allowed beards to loosen up archaic grooming standards to reach greater groups of people who are otherwise eligible for a job. What I have seen locally is that the public has had no issues with both tattoos and beards as long as there is still a standard that portrays a professional image. Restrictions on offensive tattoos and non-beards should still stand.

    The public expects us to be professional and beards and tattoos don’t change that expectation. Because of the changes to policy, we have seen a much larger pool of candidates to choose from when reviewing applicants for law enforcement positions. Many of the veterans I have personally spoken to said the norm for veterans was tattoos on arms that show when wearing a military/law enforcement uniform. Most have tattoos that reflect that service culture while actively serving. None said they considered this to be a restriction to getting hired into law enforcement later in life. Why restrict our agencies to people who fit a mold from the 1950s when they otherwise are excellent candidates to protect our communities? Modern culture changes and law enforcement has to change with it to attract the best and brightest to the profession. I think it is very shallow and short-sighted to prohibit people with inoffensive tattoos and groomed beards from applying for law enforcement jobs. Agencies have had to think outside the box to fill these crucial roles to keep our communities safe. I applaud the agencies who are willing to rethink archaic policies to fill these critical jobs. I have been in law enforcement for 20 years and can tell you from my experience, the public accepts these changes without issue in my area of south Florida. Let’s keep the standards strict when it comes to the real criteria for selection such as honesty, integrity and putting the community first. Times change and law enforcement must change with it. Just my two cents.

  • The closing paragraph states: “So here is the challenge as I see it. The policing profession is in an unmitigated crisis trying to recruit and retain qualified people. If officers prioritize relaxed standards as a key employment factor, agencies that enforce stricter guidelines may risk losing personnel to those with more lenient policies. In other words, it may be too late to address this issue. That would be unfortunate as many of us still believe in the importance of appearance and its overall impact on the effectiveness of officers.”

    Some words of encouragement for our profession... perhaps...I agree that we could be at the point of no return if we choose to stay there. However, I also offer the following thoughts. If an agency is losing personnel to other agencies with more lenient policies, it might be okay. If an agency is squared away and their professionalism goes beyond just stricter guidelines for uniforms, you may lose some personnel, but you are bound to attract other personnel that might be the type of employee you are looking for. We want to retain and recruit personnel who know what professional command presence means. The important thing to remember is professional command appearance cannot be just uniform deep. It should just be an outward reflection of what is going on internally. It is easy to put a lot of investment into sharp-looking uniforms and then neglect training, policies, standards and performance. Pick your uniforms carefully, and make them functional and professional. Then invest in your agency as a whole — uniforms, training, public service — the whole package. Make your agency the most attractive both internally and externally. That will recruit and retain staff. Then if you lose some to another agency with more lenient policies for uniforms, perhaps it was okay. Maybe you will recruit their best and brightest instead!
  • As a 23-year Mass. State Trooper, the standards have declined significantly. Agencies are just trying to get people on the job. Most standards for hair/tattoos/ weight have gone out the window. It is a total embarrassment when the arrestees are more squared away than the cops. As society has no more rules, morals, or self respect, then law enforcement is following close behind.
  • You are right on target. ALL police departments should have appearance standards, as well as enforcing those standards. You see on the news unkempt officers with mixed uniforms and overweight officers. Should any of these get into a foot pursuit with a suspect, who pays for their care after a heart attack? No, every aspect of EVERY professional organization should have and expose those standards. This also includes our military.
  • I am a current law enforcement officer for a small agency in the western US. I’m a younger officer, early 30s, coming up on a decade of service, with a stint in the United States Marine Corps before I entered the law enforcement profession. I have an appreciation for the old school and the traditional look when it comes to law enforcement uniforms. I have colleagues who disagree with my position, but I still believe in the old-school “Adam 12" uniform for patrol officers. In an age when many cops want outer carriers and drop holsters, I still choose to wear a Sam Browne duty belt with a traditional style hard badge and nameplate. I maintain a clean-shaven appearance, a high and tight haircut, and a clean uniform. I still believe in the sharp, crisp look of the LAPD-style uniform and I think that it still screams professionalism. I am a younger officer who recognizes that old school doesn’t necessarily mean outdated; the PR24 baton is still superior to the ASP and I am hopeful that department administrators across the country recognize that we have a legitimate need for the PR to make a comeback on patrol. Ditto for the traditional police uniform; it will always loom sharp and command presence does still matter on the street. Nylon belts and matte suede will never have the sharp look and command presence of clean leather with polished nickel-plated brass and polished duty boots. Just my two cents on the subject.
  • As I type this I’m torn between two extremes. On the one hand, I look at my brother’s agency, the North Carolina State Highway Patrol, which wears long sleeves and ties year round and whose hair policy is right up there with the USMC in its short haircut and no facial hair mandates. They are known far and wide for their professional appearance and the level of respect they are given by the general public far exceeds their traffic enforcement-oriented mission. On the other hand, at this moment I’ve got a heating pad on my back to try to tamp down some of the pain that I attribute to having worn a full patent leather Sam Brown belt for 16 of my 28 years in law enforcement. As my wife is a physician, and quite prone to nagging as a loving wife and mother does, she has made me well aware of the numerous studies that promote some manner of load-bearing vest to minimize additional equipment weight on the hips.

    So, now it’s time for my soapbox moment. We need both. We need clear uniform standards so that everyone exhibits that officer presence (which is first and foremost number one on the use of force continuum) and we need clear grooming standards. We aren’t installing fiber optic cable, we are law enforcement and we should look like what we are, which is professionals doing a damn hard job. However, we need a professional and practical uniform that is conducive to today’s job requirements because the weight we carry is increasing and not decreasing.

    Just in my tenure, my agency of 600+ went from a 9mm with a single spare mag, handcuffs, radio and OC spray to a heavier 45 with two spare mags plus we’ve added tourniquets, a TASER, body cam, AR mag and an ASP baton. It’s so much that my 36-inch waist barely has any room left over and smaller officers need to pick and choose what they will carry, possibly to their detriment.

    I guess what I am saying in a roundabout way is that the officers on the street need a comfortable uniform that will suit their needs while still projecting a professional “uniform” appearance to the public.

  • Thank you for serving in law enforcement for over 45 years and commenting on this new topic that is often spoken about these days in the NYPD. While I haven’t served the police force as long as you, I will let you know that the NYPD should be focusing its attention on more important matters such as keeping quality officers. The department’s turnover rate is extremely high and is the perfect example of a “revolving door!” In the summer of 2023, I stood on a foot post for 22 hours during the J’Ouvert West Indian Day parade. While the humidity increased and the temperatures rose, my asthma began to increase and my saving grace was my cargo pants in which I had my two asthma pumps were stored. Can one executive explain where to store asthma pumps when wearing administrative pants? Maybe they could work on implementing a holder/pouch that is authorized to hold asthma pumps. The percentage of asthmatic officers has greatly increased; why not ask the officers their opinions? You know the ones who will be standing on a footpost for inhumane hours as the executives sit in air-conditioned rooms discussing nonsense topics. The entire department needs revamping, the archaic policies need to be something of the past and morale needs boosting! You think eliminating cargo pants will improve morale?
  • I am an 87-year-old retired police officer who served 26 years in a 300-person department in the 60s, 70s and 80s. I was always clean-shaven and neat as were my fellow officers, whether in uniform or street clothes. I am appalled at the appearance of many officers today with beards and uniforms that are ill-fitting. The supervisors who allow this must be slobs themselves, with NO pride in how they look and this could lead to how they do their job. Clean up your act.
  • NYPD uniform code and dress standards are perfect for the 21st century. The cargo pants are needed for equipment, etc. Old uniforms were hot and sticky. Do you want officers or models? Focus on the main issues not minor things. Leave their uniform alone as long as they clean and in good condition and men’s facial hair is groomed and neatly trimmed.
  • I started as a police officer in 1980. I retired for the second time in 2023. Within that time frame, I was a patrol officer, detective and sergeant, and retired as a chief. When I started the uniform was just that, a uniform so we all looked alike. We went from short sleeves to long sleeves and ties and back to short sleeves on a specific date. No matter what the weather might be. It didn’t matter if you were comfortable or not. The uniforms HAD to be dry cleaned and were stiff and rough. As the years went by things relaxed a bit with the administration finally realizing the officers need to be able to move freely to function properly. When I finally moved up the ladder and was able to make changes to the uniform I did. My thoughts were and still are that if an officer is comfortable in the uniform they will be happier and be more positive in their job. If an officer wanted to wear short sleeves and were comfortable in the middle of winter so be it. As long as they wore department-approved shirts, pants and duty belts I could care less if they wore short sleeves in winter, or long sleeves in summer. My department worked 120-hour shifts so their comfort for 12 hours was more important to me than the old perception that they all looked the same at a call for service. That being said, I did require that the officers have a set of class-A uniforms for events such as funerals, etc. We also allowed officers the choice of wearing polo shirts with BDU-type pants. Again this was done for comfort regarding 12-hour shifts. I know everyone will not agree with this philosophy but it worked for us.
  • As a federal LEO, I somewhat agree with a professional standard when it comes to uniforms. The only thing I don’t agree with are tattoos and beards. As long as the bead is clean and a certain length, they should be OK. As for tattoos not on the face or neck and hands. They shouldn’t be offensive or gang-related. The uniform is important and should also be a set standard.

Listen to Gordon Graham discuss professional dress for law enforcement:

Paul Cappitelli is an honorably retired law enforcement professional with over 45 years of experience. From 2007-2012, Paul served as Executive Director for the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST). Prior to his POST appointment, he retired at the rank of Captain from the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department in California, following 29 years of service. Paul is a past and present member of several professional groups and associations. He holds an undergraduate degree in business management and a master’s degree in public administration. He is currently a public safety consultant and police/corrections practices expert. Visit Contact Paul Cappitelli.