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Tuesday, 5 September, 2000, 16:45 GMT 17:45 UK
The police uniform blues?

Bobbies on the beat must become more visible and approachable, say senior officers. So what can be done to raise the profile of the boys and girls in blue?

The actual number of police officers on UK streets is a hotly debated issue, but police chiefs say the bobbies already there would be more effective if they were more accessible to the public.

Home secretary Jack Straw
"Where's a police officer when you want one?"
Chief Superintendent Peter Gammon, president of the Police Superintendents' Association (PSA) of England and Wales, says current patrolling practices need to be changed.

"We should be answering the public plea to see more uniformed officers on the streets. They find the sight reassuring. We owe it to the public."

The PSA suggests putting more plainclothes officers back into uniform and increasing the number of constables pounding the beat alone.

Lone success

Chief Sup Gammon points to the example of PC Paul Hurst, the Merseyside officer who won over the residents of a Toxteth estate by ditching his body armour and patrol car.

The rigors of modern policing have prompted greater use of protective garments and the carrying of an array of weapons and equipment.

Police officer in body armour
Is the body armour intimidating?
Martin Skinner, a Warwick University social psychologist, says such changes may contribute to the distancing of police officers from the public.

"Having handcuffs and long batons hanging off their belts makes them more soldier-like. This does tend make the police look less approachable."

Changes to uniforms are already in the pipeline, as forces across England and Wales prepare for the creation of a "national" dress code.

Fashion police

Mr Skinner says the public perception of the new apparel should be considered alongside issues of practicality.

"The police uniforms in some other countries have highly militaristic connotations. If you dress police to look like an armed force, they'll be perceived to be a paramilitary presence on the streets."

Riot police during a demonstration
French police sport the paramilitary look
In the impoverished suburbs of Paris, the sight of a Compagnies Republicanes de Securite riot police uniform is said to prompt angry confrontations.

Conversely in Russia, the notorious "tax" police see their martial uniforms as a positive boon for attracting an army of children to their cadet school.

"Kids love a uniform," said Col Vyacheslav Romaikin, who trains police cadets in Moscow. "It's austere, manly and gives them a sense of pride."

It seems unlikely British police will be outfitted like paratroopers in the near future. In preparation for the national uniform the Norfolk Constabulary merely traded in their blue shirts for white.

New image

Likewise in Northern Ireland, recommendations for changes to the RUC included suggestions for a new uniform - though in the old colour.

Open-necked shirts and baseball caps were some of the more casual options brought up in the heated debate that followed.

Russian policeman
"My mum knitted the balaclava."
Chief Sup Gammon is not convinced that menacing uniforms are the problem on the mainland.

"I don't think the public have a problem with police wearing body armour. It's not that they aren't willing to speak to officers - it's that they only see them whizzing past in cars."

Being seen in local parks, businesses and at events such as the Notting Hill Carnival promises more benefits than turning out in low-key dress, he says.

Standing out

But he does think that uniforms should be given a makeover, to improve their visibility.

"Perhaps we should wear a different colour. For instance, bicycle officers often wear florescent tabards, and we've used florescent coats for traffic duty for many years."

Police officer at 10 Downing Street
"Honestly, he goes past like I'm invisible!"
Such loud dress could help participants in a new game being run by Merseyside Police. Inspired by the Pokémon craze, beat officers carry cards bearing their picture. The first child to collect all 20 wins a secret prize.

Any major revamp of the police uniform is probably going to be at the expense of the policeman's most recognisable bit of kit - his helmet.

Introduced in 1863, and admittedly based on a military design, the police helmet has helped make the British PCs famous around the world.

Hat trick

Its passing - officers in Scotland and Manchester have already been excused - will not be missed by some. It is said not to meet today's health and safety regulations and is obviously impractical for officers in patrol cars.

However, the British Tourist Authority fears foreign visitors will be disappointed to find no helmeted "bobbies" directing the red double-decker buses.

Polce officer
"I knew I should have written my name inside."
Despite what senior officers say, some of those on the beat are not so sure "visibility" is a help in their job.

During a consultation on the new uniform, one PC noted that the old-fashioned helmet are too noticeable.

Villains, he said, "see them coming from half a mile away."

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See also:

14 Sep 99 | Scotland
Police unveil new body armour
30 Aug 00 | UK
Who would be a PC?
08 Sep 99 | Northern Ireland
The RUC: Head to head
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