I had to drive to Banbury today. In the town centre, I drove past a police car with its blue lights flashing. It was parked between a white van and a saloon car and quite a few figures were grouped on the pavement. I assume police officers were quizzing the occupants of the van and the car about a potential driving offence or questioning them on the basis of information received. What struck me was the sheer scruffiness of the policemen – and yes, I am pretty sure they were all men. From the head and working down: no helmet; no jacket; no tie; a black T-shirt and black trousers, all creased in the wrong places. They were as scruffy as the people they had stopped. The only item the police were not wearing that their suspects were wearing was a hoodie. With that exception and a not very legible POLICE legend on the police officers’ backs, the coppers and their suspects were virtually indistinguishable. The police could have been utility workmen, doormen, plumbers or bus drivers. Look closely and you might have spotted handcuffs hanging from a belt to tell you these were guardians of the law.
Call me old fashioned if you like but respect and authority stem substantially from appearance. We have seen teachers who struggle to establish authority over and respect from the children they teach because they insist on dressing down to match their pupils’ dress style. We have dress-down Fridays as if dressing well was a painful necessity and adopting a scruffy style was a happy release.
The police have enough problems with public perception already without exasperating them by being indistinguishable from the villains they are meant to pursue. A few have been found wanting on issues of public probity and accountability. Many motorists regard traffic police as a positive nuisance and a lot of householders have little confidence that the police will be there for them when they are burgled or subject to anti-social behaviour.
If they are to regain the position of community champions and friends of honest citizens, they are going to have to smarten up. I probably show my age by referring to Dixon of Dock Green but he stood for something dignified, incorruptible and British; a symbol of authority, trust and respect. Plenty of institutions still understand the importance of appearance in building confidence and esprit de corps: the military, fire fighters, judges, clerics and aircrew.
I fear dress-down Tony Blair and the politically correct Ian Blair may have led our police too far down the road to scruffiness. Time to smarten up your act, coppers.