I am very familiar with a small southern police department that has a lot of problems. It lacks many of those things that one would want in an agency of any size. Offhand, a cohesive leadership vision (or really any vision beyond the occasion of the moment), a philosophy or operational culture couched in 21st century realities, fair and even promotions or discipline, modern equipment, adequate facilities, a living wage, decent health insurance… all immediately come to mind. But there is one particular tempest in this veritable teacup of rearward looking police practice that has always held my interest: shirt sleeves.
For the sake of “uniformity” the officers whose duties require them to wear a uniform are told a date each year when they must start wearing short sleeves and one when they must wear long sleeves. Mind you there’s a lean white male officer who’s six and a half feet tall and a fuller figure black female officer who tops out around five even — and pretty much any other combination heights, weights, races, genders as one would find in the general public.
This panoply humans forms aside, when she steps out of a marked police unit in her uniform and he steps out of his unit wearing a similar uniform, most people familiar with the concept would see two police officers. Seems cut and dried. Were it only so. Apparently if one of them were to step out in long sleeves and the other in short sleeves it would be such an affront to justice and propriety as to undermine the whole of their authority. At least that’s what the arbiters of this seasonal tradition would have you believe.
There’s nothing on their uniforms that says “police” that’s more than half an inch high. Yet even the dullest among us would know what we’re seeing. If they’re close enough that you can read police, you’ve already drawn some conclusions. How then do we unpack this shirt sleeve crisis in a way that’s philosophically deeper than ‘because I said so’?
I can think of only one logical path; and that path involves semiotics, dramaturgical analysis, and Dizzy Gillespie.
Writing for the journal, Midwestern Folklore, Carrie Hertz helps lay the groundwork for understanding the social context of uniforms, “Clothing is a silent but visual marker of social identities and relationships. It has the ability to communicate multilayered messages that embody different meanings for different audiences simultaneously…. Since the uniform is a genre of clothing, its distinction…