Wichita police may soon be wearing blue instead of brown.
Members of the District 1 Advisory Board in north Wichita were told at a meeting earlier this month that Wichita police were considering new uniforms. One officer modeled a dark blue (nearly black) option, according to board members who were present.
Wichita Police Department spokesman Charley Davidson said there is a committee considering new uniforms. The department may present information to the City Council later this month.
Davidson said uniforms the police now wear are not exclusively khaki, and the department currently allows officers to wear some green and black clothing. Bike officers wear yellow.
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Brandon Johnson, a member of the District 1 advisory board, said he likes the khaki uniforms. He said the officer who modeled the uniform at the meeting said the department was looking for community feedback.
Some of the advisory board members liked it, others didn’t, he said.
“I personally thought the navy blue was too close to black, and SWAT teams wear all black,” Johnson said. “I like the warmth of the colors now. It’s a little more welcoming.”
He said specific information about how much new uniforms would cost was not given.
“In summer, it’s going to be hell if they’re wearing dark blue,” said Dan Heflin, another member of the advisory board.
“I really like the current one. It looks more friendly. (The dark blue looked) like New York City cops. They look more like cops instead of part of the community.”
History of khaki
Uniforms play a central role in how the public perceives law enforcement, said Michael Birzer, professor of criminology and director for the school of community affairs at Wichita State University.
Wichita police have worn khaki-colored uniforms for nearly 90 years.
When O.W. Wilson became Wichita’s police chief in the late 1920s, he changed the uniforms from a traditional blue to khaki, Birzer said.
The idea, Birzer said, was that khaki was easier to maintain and more versatile than the blue wool uniforms at the time. The khaki resembled the uniforms worn by army officers back then.
“Policing has roots as a semi- or paramilitary organization,” Birzer said. “The thought was that their appearance needed to be 110 percent.”
Wilson also had all of the department’s navy blue police cars painted white for better visibility, Birzer said.
Under Wilson, the Wichita Police Department became known as the “West Point of Law Enforcement,” and Wilson later went on to become the superintendent of police for the Chicago Police Department.
In 1990, under former Wichita police Chief Rick Stone – who hailed from the blue-clad Dallas Police Department – the department considered switching to blue. A committee was set up to evaluate the uniforms, but officers voted overwhelmingly to keep the old uniforms, citing tradition.
The department received an honorable mention the next year in the National Association of Uniform Manufacturers & Distributors 14th annual Best Dressed Police Department Competition.
Power of color
Most police departments wear some shade of blue, Birzer said. The tradition dates back to the 1800s, when there was a surplus of blue Union Army uniforms after the Civil War.
But trends change over time.
“Recently there’s been controversy over whether police should wear battle dress fatigues and black,” Birzer said.
“Many departments are trying to get away from that unless it’s a high emergency. ... It’s important that police don’t look oppressive. You don’t want them to look like part of an occupying army.”
Color can also potentially affect how police are perceived.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, some departments in California experimented with green blazers and trousers and officers wore their weapons under their jackets, Birzer said. They tracked incidents over time and saw a reduction, but they weren’t able to determine whether the uniforms or other factors played a definitive role. They eventually went back to their traditional uniforms.
“The police uniform can have extraordinary psychological and physical impact. Depending on the background of the citizen, the police uniform can elicit emotions ranging from pride and respect, to fear and anger,” according to “The Psychological Influence of the Police Uniform,” which appeared in a 2001 FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin.
“Alterations to the traditional, paramilitary police uniform can result in changes in public perceptions. The style of the clothes, the type of hat worn, the color of the material, and even the condition of the clothes and equipment have an influence on how citizens perceive officers. For these reasons, police administrators seriously should consider their uniform policies. ... Darker police uniforms may send negative subconscious signals to citizens. A dark police uniform may subconsciously encourage citizens to perceive officers as aggressive, evil, or corrupt and send a negative message to the community.”
In a 2005 study published in the Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, more than 700 participants were shown several uniforms: a light blue shirt and navy blue pants; a white shirt and black pants; a black shirt and black pants; and a khaki shirt and khaki pants.
Participants were asked what they thought about the uniforms: Were they good or bad, nice or mean, warm or cold, gentle or forceful, friendly or unfriendly, passive or aggressive, and honest or corrupt?
The all-black color scheme was viewed the most negatively, and the light blue shirt with navy pants was viewed the most positively.
The 2016 budgeted clothing allowance for Wichita police is $500,000. Any change in uniforms would be budget neutral, according to Police Chief Gordon Ramsay.