Initially police uniforms identified the police as separate from the military. Uniforms also increased visibility, so criminals would curb their activity in the presence of an officer and a citizen in distress could easily spot an officer in a crowd. Since their inception in the late 19th century, police uniforms have evolved to meet the changing demands placed on officers.
Prior to a public police force, cities often used citizen watchmen, sometimes identified by a badge but often in plain clothes. In 1829 London established the first modern police force, including a uniform dress code. They chose dark blue for the police because the British military wore red and white. Following their lead, including the colour choice, U.S. police departments began to institute dress codes. New York was the first in 1853.
Early uniforms consisted of a high-collared, tailed, dark navy wool coat with shiny buttons, and a cane top hat. The tails were soon removed, leaving a tunic style coat, and a custodian helmet (peaked top with a chinstrap). By the 1950s, the U.S. uniform included blue trousers, blue shirt and a flat cap with a visor on the front. The British police evolved similarly, though blue became black. They continued to use the peaked helmet though additional hat styles were approved including a bowler, flat cap and bicycle helmet. These uniforms are now considered dress wear and worn at funerals and formal occasions.
In the late 20th century police uniforms changed to increase mobility, visibility and safety of officers. British officers now wear a black stab vest, black cargo trousers, white shirt, black boots and reflective jacket. U.S. police forces now offer a range of uniforms depending on unit, job function and season. Bicycle officers wear short trousers and golf shirts, while special weapons and tactics teams (SWAT) wear body armour, helmets and full-face visors.
Why the Dark Colors?
Around the world, most police uniforms are dark colours. Blue and black are most common, while in environments known more for trees than skyscrapers, dark brown or green are popular. The psychological reason for this is that dark colours are associated with strength. There are practical concerns too, in that dark colours allow officers to camouflage themselves in urban or dark situations. Plus, practically, dark colours hide stains so the uniform will look better, longer.
Although dark colours are associated with strength, they are also associated with evil and aggression. For example, the New York Police Department replaced dark blue with what was perceived to be a more friendly blue, after riots in the 1960s and cases of police corruption in the 1970s. Though in the late 20th century, when citizens sought safety from terrorism, the uniforms returned to dark blue.