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A History of Police Uniforms—and Why They Matter

Uniforms have influenced interactions between cops and citizens since the start of American policing.
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Reuters/Mario Anzuoni

The paramilitarisitic uniforms and gear of the St. Louis County Police Department have made headlines as clashes between police and protestors in Ferguson, Missouri, continue. Parallels have been drawn between the influx of heavy, military-style gear into suburban police departments and the starkly adversarial relationship between black residents in Ferguson and the majority-white police forces there. 

Police uniforms have come under similar scrutiny during other times of civil unrest in the U.S. As Norman Stamper, Seattle’s chief of police during the 1999 protests against a World Trade Organization meeting there, told Vox, allowing his officers to dress in full body army and gas masks that made them look "like ninjas" was "an act of provocation," a decision he called the "worst mistake of my career." Keeping officers in their standard uniforms, he explained, would have been "a huge step in the right direction towards de-escalation."