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Back to Archives | Back to November 2003 Contents 

Studying Public Perceptions of Police Grooming Standards

Deputy Chief Paul N. Tinsley, Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada, Police Department; Darryl Plecas, Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice; and Gregory S. Anderson, Professor of Kinesi




Many law enforcement agencies have long had policies or regulations regarding grooming standards for police officers. These agencies have argued that strict grooming standards are necessary to ensure safety, discipline, and uniformity; to promote an esprit de corps; and to foster public respect for police. Courts have widely accepted these reasons as legitimate and rational.

Nevertheless, some employees argue that appearance is an aspect of personal liberty and that grooming standards should therefore be considered unconstitutional. Grooming standards, they claim, are outdated. They note that society's standards concerning acceptable appearance have changed over the years. For this reason, some police associations have sought to challenge grooming regulations on the grounds that they infringe on officers' rights and on the assumption that they are outdated.


The Courts Support "Rational Basis"

Although the courts have acknowledged a person's right to make choices about his or her appearance, they have also upheld limits on freedom of expression when such freedoms cause harm to others, including harm to reputation, business operation, or public order. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court acknowledged that grooming standards and other restrictions (such as requirements for police officers to salute the flag, wear a uniform, and not smoke in public) infringe on an officer's freedom of choice in personal matters. However, the Court ruled that a police department need only have a "rational basis" to constitutionally restrict an officer's freedom of choice in these areas.1

Thus, in cases such as Kelley v. Johnson, in which the plaintiff challenged a police department regulation that required male officers to maintain neat and trimmed hair, the court held that similarity in appearance was desirable and related to the promotion of the safety of persons and property.2 In this case, the court ruled that the police department established a legitimate, non-arbitrary reason for the rule or regulation. Thus, it survived constitutional scrutiny under the "rational basis analysis"-that is, its purpose was to make police officers readily recognizable to members of the public.

In Canada Safeway Ltd. and United Food and Commercial Workers, the union challenged the employer's personal appearance code, which required male employees to be clean shaven at all times.3 The union argued that the views of customers had changed since a 1981 court ruling, when it was held that "the employer had reasonable grounds for believing that wearing of beards would have an adverse impact on business." To support their argument, the union relied on a survey conducted by a private research firm, which demonstrated that there would be no negative impact on business if customers encountered employees with neatly trimmed beards or moustaches.

However, the employer submitted conflicting results from another special survey that suggested that "cleanliness and neatness among food store employees is an important aspect of choosing a grocery store" and that 14 percent of customers would likely switch stores if beards were allowed.4 The arbitrator gave more weight to the expertise of the survey, concluding that the no-beard policy was reasonable since the employer established grounds to believe it would lose a significant amount of business if male employees were allowed to wear beards.

Police administrators have responded to recent challenges of grooming standards by arguing that more liberal grooming standards would erode public respect for the police. Although the courts often look to social science evidence to establish the link between expression and harm, cases like Kelly v. Johnson and Canada Safeway have clearly established the need for agencies to present objective evidence from a reputable source.5 With this in mind, the study described in this article was designed to assess current public attitudes towards police officer grooming.


Study Methodology

The study began when the authors mailed questionnaires to seven randomly selected groups of 200 citizens (1,400 total) in Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada. Each of the seven groups was sent a different questionnaire. One questionnaire asked citizens a series of questions about their views on police officer grooming (e.g., Should male uniformed police officers be allowed to wear a limited amount of jewelry?). No photographs accompanied this questionnaire.

Each of the other six questionnaires was accompanied by a computer-manipulated photo of a police officer exhibiting one of six selected grooming standards (shaved head, goatee, pierced ear, full beard, shaved head with goatee, and no distinguishing grooming feature). On the questionnaire, beside the photo, was the following narrative for citizens to consider:

You can assume that the man in the picture has worked in regional policing, in another province, for 10 years and has recently been considering a move to the Lower-Mainland. He would like to work in Abbotsford as a uniformed patrol officer.

He is 35 years old, is married, and has two children. He has a diploma in criminal justice and graduated from the police academy in 1991.

During his 10-year police career he has served in a number of positions, including regular patrol, bike patrol, and criminal investigations. He has a satisfactory work performance and is well liked by coworkers.

Although this is not a lot of information to go on, we would like you to rate him on your expectations that he would possess the following eight qualities. . . .

As noted in the last sentence of the narrative, respondents were asked to rate the pictured officer in terms of eight qualities: knowledge of the law, reliability, being objective, trustworthiness, concern for the public, hardworking, courtesy, and fairness. Respondents rated the officer using a five-point rating scale: very low; low; neither high nor low; high; and very high.

Respondents were asked to return their completed questionnaires in a stamped return envelope to the University College of the Fraser Valley. Of the 1,152 questionnaires containing pictures, 512 (44 percent) were returned, and 97 (49 percent) of 196 nonpicture questionnaires were returned. There were no significant differences between the response rates across the six different questionnaires with pictures.


Citizens Want Strict Grooming Standards

The results of both the picture and nonpicture questionnaires contrasted significantly with the authors' general hypotheses. The authors predicted that if citizens were asked directly, they would state that they were quite accepting of a range of grooming features. For this reason, questionnaires with pictures were included as part of the present study. The authors were concerned that when asked directly, citizens might say they were tolerant; but at a subconscious level, they would be less tolerant than they claimed to be. However, the results clearly indicate that this was not the case.

For example, table 1 shows how respondents answered when asked on the nonpicture, text-based questionnaire whether or not male uniformed police officers should be allowed to have any of 19 listed grooming characteristics. As can be seen, most agree with allowing moustaches, limited amounts of jewelry and hidden tattoos, and about half agree with allowing shaved heads, sideburns, and hair dyed with conservative colours, but there was very little support for the less conservative grooming features.

Table 1

Public Opinion of Selected Grooming Characteristics of Male Uniformed Police Officers*

Characteristic

% Who Agreed
Characteristic
Should Be Allowed

1. Wear a limited amount of jewelry

86

2. Have a moustache

79

3. Have tattoos that are not visible

65

4. Have a shaved head

55

5. Have sideburns

50

6. Dye hair with conservative colors

49

7. Have a goatee

31

8. Have a beard

27

9. Have visible tattoos except in the neck/head area

20

10. Wear a plain stud earring

16

11. Have hair length below the shirt collar

15

12. Have a goatee and shaved head at the same time

11

13. Have tattoos anywhere

8

14. Have any amount of jewelry

6

15. Dye hair any color

6

16. Wear any kind of earring

4

17. Pierce eyebrows

3

18. Pierce nose

2

19. Have other facial piercing

2

* N = 97, and given population size of 112,000, the margin of error is plus or minus 10 at a 95 percent confidence level.

** Includes "agree" and "strongly agree" responses on a 5-point scale. Other response categories include "neither," "disagree," and "strongly disagree."
All figures rounded.

Similarly, table 2 shows how respondents answered when asked whether or not female uniformed police officers should be allowed to have any of 14 listed grooming characteristics. Again, there is very little support for grooming features that go beyond limited amounts of jewelry, plain stud earrings, hidden tattoos, and hair below the shirt collar.

Table 2

Public Opinion of Selected Grooming Characteristics of Female Uniformed Police Officers*

Characteristic

% Who Agreed
Characteristic
Should Be Allowed

1. Wear a limited amount of jewelry

78

2. Wear plain stud earrings

70

3. Have tattoos that are not visible

68

4. Dye hair conservative colours

66

5. Have hair length below the shirt collar

56

6. Have a shaved head

22

7. Have tattoos visible except in the head/neck area

17

8. Have any kind of earrings

13

9. Dye hair any colour

9

10. Have tattoos anywhere

5

11. Have any amount of jewellery

5

12. Pierce nose

3

13. Pierce eyebrows

2

14. Have other facial piercing

2

* N = 97, and given population size of 112,000, the margin of error is plus or minus 10 at a 95 percent confidence level.

** Includes "agree" and "strongly agree" responses on a 5-point scale. Other response categories include "neither," "disagree," and "strongly disagree."
All figures rounded.

These results, then, indicate that the general public does not support relaxed grooming standards and suggest that there are several negative consequences of officers being allowed to deviate from conservative grooming standards (see table 3). At the same time, as table 4 shows, it is clear that the large majority of respondents are concerned about the consequences of relaxed grooming standards. Generally speaking, respondents believe that relaxing standards would erode confidence in the police, especially in terms of respect, trust, and pride.

Table 3

Public Opinion of Police and Grooming Standards*

Statement

% Agree

% Disagree

% No Opinion

1. Police are a symbol of justice

95

0

5

2. A uniformed police officer should be governed by strict grooming standards

87

4

9

3. The public view of the police is shaped by their appearance

86

4

10

4. I believe diversity within the force would be enhanced if grooming standards were relaxed

20

56

24

* N = 97, and given population size of 112,000 the margin of error is plus or minus 10 at a 95 percent confidence level. All figures rounded.


Table 4

Public Opinion of Consequences of Allowing Officers to Deviate from Strict Grooming Standards*

Consequence Presented

% Agree

% Disagree

% No Opinion

1. Public respect for the police would drop

88

2

10

2. I would have less pride in the police

79

8

13

3. The public would have less pride in the police

78

4

18

4. I would have less respect for the police

77

9

14

5. Public trust in the police would drop

76

7

17

6. I would trust the police less

66

11

23

* N = 97, and given population size of 112,000 the margin of error is plus or minus 10 at a 95 percent confidence level. All figures rounded.

Although the overall results of the nonpicture questionnaires clearly support strict grooming standards for police officers, the results of the picture questionnaires were quite different. We had predicted that visual cues would prompt different reactions amongst the six different grooming styles presented, but there were no differences to speak of.

Regardless of the pictured grooming style associated with a questionnaire, very few respondents gave the officer a low rating on any of the eight qualities considered. In addition, there were no statistically significant differences in results between versions of the questionnaire on any quality considered, and the results from each version of the questionnaire were remarkably similar.


The Power of the Uniform

There are at least two ways to explain the unexpected results. First, pictures displaying a male in uniform may have biased the rating results. The literature suggests that clothing provides clues about a person's background and serves as a mental shortcut to identify a person's sex, status, group membership, legitimacy, authority and occupation.6 Specifically, the police uniform represents a powerful clue to a person's authority, capability, and status.

Researchers Joseph and Alex suggest that the uniform serves several functions, such as acting symbolically, certifying legitimacy, and suppressing individuality.7 The uniform stands as one of the most important visual representations of the law enforcement profession. When police officers wear their uniforms, the public believes that they embody the stereotypical traits of all police officers. In another study, Johnson compared various research findings, which illustrated consistently that persons in uniform are rated as being more competent, reliable, intelligent, and professional than persons wearing other clothing.8

Our findings are consistent with the literature, recording an equally high rating for the uniformed officer portrayed in all six different pictures. Thus one might conclude that the respondents rated the qualities of the individual in the pictures according to their existing perceptions of uniformed police officers and their satisfaction with the local police department, disregarding the different grooming styles in the pictures.

Second, the power of stereotypes must also be considered. According to Fiske, stereotypes have rich associations, visual features, and distinctive characteristics. Fiske notes that they operate efficiently in terms of expected images.9 Fiske suggests different levels of processing stereotypes, one of which is "personalization according to individual schemas and propositional networks."10 This means that when confronted with the question of whether officers should be allowed to have long hair or not, the public falls back on already formed ideas of how uniformed police should look. Because the public may associate long hair with negative imagery, ranging from unconventional to antiestablishment, respondents to the text-only survey may have decided against a relaxation of grooming regulations.

But once the public gets exposed to an individual male, clean and neat in appearance but wearing an earring (for example), three related but slightly different outcomes are possible: first, the earring is invisible and therefore irrelevant; second, the male wearing the earring is perceived as being more positive than the stereotype and so is viewed as an exception to the rule; and third, the male in the picture is personalized and, as such, mitigates against negative stereotypes.

In these three cases, perceptions are positive and therefore qualities are rated highly. A final point, though, is that no picture portrayed an individual who had long hair, visible tattoos, and so on, and when the pictures portrayed unconventional grooming, it was restrained (e.g., small ear ring, short and light-colored beard).


Standards Should Remain

The usefulness of this research is limited by two methodology considerations. First, using a person wearing a police uniform may have biased respondent ratings on the picture-based questionnaires. Second, the narrative in these questionnaires may have reinforced the positive attitudes that the public already have about police officers and similarly biased the ratings. To understand better the issues around grooming, it will be necessary to conduct a multivariate study, underpinned by a more adequate theory that addresses competing explanations, where confounding variables are controlled. Asking people for their opinions about grooming standards is a good start, but to understand such opinions and how they may correspond to the real world is another matter.

Granted that further research is necessary, the results of the present study do not support relaxed grooming standards for police officers. In fact, the results from the text-based questionnaire suggest that the general public is overwhelmingly opposed to "anything goes" grooming standards, and the reasons are indicated in tables 3 and 4.

Specifically, it is believed that relaxed grooming standards would erode public confidence in the police to the extent that respect, trust, and pride would decline. The positive image that police currently benefit from has been developed over many years, under current conservative grooming policies, and any changes may have long-term and unknown negative effects. This being the case, the authors suggest erring on the side of caution, leaving current grooming policies in place until more conclusive evidence suggests otherwise. ♦

Andrea Huelsman, a student in the Criminology and Criminal Justice Program at UCFV, and Kris DeJong, a graduate of UCFV's Criminology and Criminal Justice Program, assisted in writing this article.





1 W. McCormack, "Grooming and Weight Standards for Law Enforcement: The Legal Issues," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin 7 (1994): 27-32.
2 Kelley v. Johnson, 425 U.S. 238 (1976).
3 Canada Safeway Ltd. and U.F.C.W., Loc. 1518 (Re) 74 L.A.C. (4th) 306 (1998) (see also Canada Law Book Inc., 2001).
4 Ibid., 14.
5 R. Moon, The Constitutional Protection of Freedom of Expression (Toronto, Ontario: University of Toronto Press, 2000), 36.
6 R. Johnson, "The Psychological Influence of the Police Uniform," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin 70 (2001): 27-33.
7 N. Joseph and N. Alex, "The Uniform: A Sociological Perspective," American Journal of Sociology, 77, no. 4 (1972): 719-730.
8 R. Johnson, loc. cit.
9 S. Fiske, "Social Cognition and Social Perception," Annual Review of Psychology 44 (1993): 155-194.
10 Ibid., 165.

Please cite as:

Paul N. Tinsley, Darryl Plecas, and Gregory S. Anderson, "Studying Public Perceptions of Police Grooming Standards," The Police Chief 70 (November 2003): 42–45.

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From The Police Chief, vol. 70, no. 11, November 2003. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.








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