Over the past decade, many police forces have taken to wearing paramilitary uniforms on the job. Over at The New Yorker, psychologist Maria Konnikova describes how this change affects citizens and police alike.
Police in Ferguson, MO, via Washington Post
Konnikova begins by exploring studies that show people have a strong psychological response when police change their uniforms, even slightly. This reaction is heightened when police dress in military gear, which people already associate with a higher level of aggression and menace than a police uniform. Interestingly, Konnikova notes, police uniforms were originally created in the mid-19th century to look as unlike military uniforms as possible. The idea was to distinguish the "blue" of the police from the "red" of the military.
But now that distinction is breaking down. And it's affecting how the police see themselves, too:
There is, too, the other side of this relationship: how what people wear affects how they act. Military gear may harm relations between police forces and citizens not only because they signal violence but because they may, in some sense, cause more violence. The same cues that signal "army" and "conflict" to civilians may affect police officers themselves. When they "dress up" for serious engagements, for example when donning SWAT gear to respond to a riot, they no longer feel like local law enforcement anymore but like part of a broader military machine.
That perception, in turn, may well affect the types of decisions they actually make. In one early study, a take on the famous Milgram paradigm, in which women were asked to deliver electric shocks to another woman whenever she made a mistake, women who wore Ku Klux Klan uniforms delivered more shocks than those who wore nurses' uniforms. The implication was that uniforms conferred some of their connotations onto the behavior of their wearers.
Maybe police reform should involve a return to uniforms that are as unlike military ones as possible.
Read the rest at The New Yorker