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State your case: Should the NYPD return to traditional uniform and grooming standards?

Our experts debate if an emphasis on traditional attire is misplaced given more critical challenges like severe understaffing

In early 2024, the NYPD initiated modifications to its uniform and grooming standards, steering back toward traditional norms. The first major announcement detailing the reintroduction of more rigid guidelines included the prohibition of beards and open collars along with reinstating weather restrictions for knit caps.

The tightening of these policies extended further in April, with the NYPD banning less formal attire such as shorts, white turtlenecks and cargo pants specifically for patrol duties and transit beats. However, they sparked contention from the NYPD’s largest union, which argued that the focus on such specifics was misplaced given more critical challenges like severe understaffing and the ongoing loss of officers.

In this month’s “State Your Case,” Jim Dudley and Chief Joel Shults engage in a critical analysis of these changes, offering insights from different perspectives to explore the implications of such policies on police image, morale and public interaction. Email your thoughts on this topic to

The ground rules: As in an actual debate, the pro and con sides are assigned randomly as an exercise in critical thinking and analyzing problems from different perspectives.

Our debaters: Jim Dudley, a 32-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department where he retired as deputy chief of the Patrol Bureau, and Chief Joel Shults, EdD, who retired as chief of police in Colorado.

Joel Shults: “The NYPD is understaffed by thousands of police officers and hundreds more are leaving every month,” Police Benevolent Association President Patrick Hendry said. “The department has much bigger issues to tackle. Is it really time to focus on beards and neckties?” My answer to his question is “Yes, it’s time.” And it’s not because I couldn’t grow a decent beard to save my life.

As a bona fide historical artifact, I remember the days of spit-shined shoes and leather gear, hair off the collar, no visible tattoos, sewn-in creases and clip-on neckties. Look sharp, be sharp.

Both the public and LEOs themselves expect police officers to be set apart from the fashion trends of the day. When the innovative Lakewood (Colorado) Police Department experimented with blazers and slacks the public response pushed them back into the traditional uniform. It took decades before the Missouri State Highway Patrol allowed short-sleeves and left-handed officers to wear their holsters to match their handedness. The New Mexico State Police have not abandoned their black uniforms even though temperatures above 100 degrees are common. In other words, uniforms mean something.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t abandon some comforts and tactical considerations for the modern law officer, but shaggy and shabby doesn’t inspire the confidence needed to deal with the public.

Be sharp, look sharp.

“Uniform changes are coming rather quickly. No more beards in about a week. No open collars in about a week. We’re going back to weather restrictions on knit caps.” — Chief of Patrol John Chell

Jim Dudley: I understand completely, Joel, but we are nearly at the bottom of the slippery slope that started once law enforcement made wholesale changes to uniform and grooming policies.

Nobody wants a cop looking like Carl Spackler from “Caddyshack,” but that is an extreme example. There has to be some level of respect exhibited to the public, your agency and to yourself, but if you show up in a clean and department-approved uniform, then that should be good enough. Are we picking nits when we say officers cannot wear a V-neck sweater with cargo shorts? If so, let’s make some minor adjustments, not abandon uniform discretion altogether.

We ask cops to do some very dirty jobs, and we should make sure they can be outfitted with a uniform that stands up to dirty environments, that are tear-resistant and can be thrown in the laundry, not taken to the cleaners. I was always a class B uniform fan until I went into Special Operations where wool did not hold up well. I turned into a wash-n-wear BDU fan (Battle Dress Uniform) almost immediately. It is comfortable and holds up well.

If what the leadership is asking is merely to go back to traditional uniforms, there could be a huge morale issue, with officers feeling that appearance takes priority over function and comfort. If officers are asked to abandon their current uniforms to new ones, there is an added expense issue as well. If the cost is passed on to the officers, that would exacerbate the resentment. Changing to uniforms that would require dry cleaning is another expense that should not fall on the individual officers.

It should be the responsibility of the agency to supply good quality uniforms to fit the function, such as three options for everyday patrol officers and one dress uniform for all ranks. Then assign special uniforms to different functions such as motor patrols, K9 units, SWAT officers and so on. Formal uniforms for everyday patrol are not realistic. As long as the uniforms are the same color and show the star/badge/patch, that would make them recognizable as police officers. Officers who have been attacked will easily be able to deflect any accusation that the suspect did not realize they were cops.

“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.” — NYPD Inspector Paul Saraceno

Joel Shults: As usual, Jim, you articulate some very defensible points. In architecture, the old adage is that form follows function and I can’t dispute that uniforms should follow function as well. Practical tactical makes sense, but even then, as you point out, neatness counts. I allowed uniform shorts and tasteful, department-issued polo shirts for summer wear, as well as the uniform outer vest (not the tactical ones with smoke grenades and six extra mags dangling). This and the option of well-fitted BDU-style uniform pants generated no negative reaction from the public (and I carefully monitored that), so I’m not inflexible.

I stand beside the traditional crisp uniform and clean-shaven appearance as the standard from which deviation should be based on assignment, safety and sustainability. We should also remember the mindset of those who size up an officer before attacking, according to FBI LEOKA documents. Bad actors may get a sense of whether they can defeat an officer based on how the officer presents themselves. Tactical practical, yes. Look sharp, be sharp, always.

Jim Dudley: Points taken, Joel but I stand by a clean and functional uniform commensurate to the job at hand.

For command, desk jockeys and community-facing personnel, yes, dress for those situations: Class A, long sleeves and ties. The others as I previously mentioned.

Command can ensure compliance by being specific (i.e., short sleeve with short pants, matching BDU top and bottom, ID on an outermost garment). Make the description part of the department manual. Have payday or random formal inspections to make sure everyone looks good.

As far as beards and tattoos, that horse has long left the barn. To your point of sloppy cops being more likely to be targeted, a trimmed beard is part of today’s approved appearance. The public perception in general would be that officers who reflect current grooming trends, such as wearing beards and tattoos, have a more humanistic and relatable appearance. Again, nobody should look like part of ZZ Top’s band, but be assuring to parts of the community.

Joel Shults: Jim, I can live with clean and functional. As for facial hair, let the readers see your ‘70s mustache and let them decide.

What do you think? Email your opinion to Read more on the issue here: When it comes to uniform and grooming standards, are we at the point of no return?

Police1 readers respond

  • 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.

  • 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:

James Dudley is a 32-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department where he retired as deputy chief of the Patrol Bureau. He has served as the DC of Special Operations and Liaison to the Department of Emergency Management where he served as Event and Incident Commander for a variety of incidents, operations and emergencies. He has a Master’s degree in Criminology and Social Ecology from the University of California at Irvine. He is currently a member of the Criminal Justice faculty at San Francisco State University, consults on organizational assessments for LE agencies and hosts the Policing Matters podcast for Police1.
Joel Shults retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30-year career in uniformed law enforcement and criminal justice education, Joel served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and a bachelor degree in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the U.S. Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over 50 police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards, including the Colorado POST curriculum committee, as a subject matter expert.