Black Lives Matter Protest in DC, 6/1/2020. (Instagram: @koshuphotography)
As hundreds of thousands of protesters around the world have joined the rallying cry of the Black Lives Matter movement since late May, protesters in casual clothing have been regularly met by police in full riot gear. These uniforms usually include helmets with long visors that cover the whole face. They also consist of heavily bolstered jackets and trousers underneath which officers often wear protective elements that get strapped to the forearms, knees and shins.
Bullet proof vests are part of the outfit and officers may also be equipped with handcuffs, cans of teargas, batons, radios and firearms. In these outfits, police very much resemble military personnel in extreme combat situations and this impression is strengthened as some officers at recent protests have been flanked by tank-like vehicles with mounted water cannons.
Police with machine guns slung across their shoulders and additional handguns strapped to their thighs have become a familiar sight in airports around the world.
Yet, this very militaristic look of the police is not reserved for situations like protests or riots. Police with machine guns slung across their shoulders and additional handguns strapped to their thighs have become a familiar sight in airports around the world.
Reality TV shows like Dallas SWAT (2006-2008) or the American based Cops (which ran for 32 season from 1989 only to be cancelled in early June of this year amid nationwide rallying cries for police reform in solidarity with Black Lives Matter) and its British counter parts like Inside the Force: 24/7 (2020) or Police Interceptors (since 2008) have further served to establish a common image of heavily armed police officers under constant threat from ruthless criminals.
At the same time, demands for increased policing and, consequently, a higher police budget have for long been part of conservative as well as liberal politicians’ campaigns while movements to disband the police had been very much sidelined in public discourses until recently.
Protesters in casual clothing have been regularly met by police in full riot gear.
Our extensive dataset of 200 years of clothing patents is a fascinating testament to the development of these discourses and the making of the police uniform as well as to changing ideas about policing.
Exploring these patents in the context of citizenship then not only raises questions about the relationship between the police and the state, but also between that of ordinary citizens and police officers.
Who needs protection and from whom or what and in what context? Who or what should provide this protection? How is this related to the securitization of public space, and to resistance and protest?
Who needs protection? From whom or what? And in what context/s?
From early on, inventors patented specialised clothing for a variety of professions and activities. They attempted to create garments that better enabled policemen (female officers are not explicitly considered and certainly not in early patents) and military personnel to perform their duties while being functional but also reasonably comfortable for the wearer.
Interestingly, a number of early patents for policemen also highlight the garments usefulness for different contexts and activities. For example, below 1919 US ‘Face and Ear Shield’ by Isidore and Samuel Greenfield outlines the mask’s suitability to protect policemen’s but also chauffeurs’, farmers’ and sailors’ ears and nose from inclement weather (Pat. US1291846A).
Isidore and Samuel Greenfield’s 1919 US patent for Face and Ear Shields.
Indeed, early inventors appear to emphasise the primarily practical nature of the garments they designed as opposed to focusing on creating coats or trousers which protected officers from potential attacks including stabbing or gun shots.
An 1891 coat for policemen by Edgar Robinson from Cincinnati features a number of special pocket mechanisms intended to carry a pistol, a club, cartridges and keys. However, no mention is made about how the coat may also potentially aid an officer in protecting himself against a threat or attack of any type (Pat. US454770 (A).
Other patents from that era also stress the need for pockets in law enforcement personnels’ garments to be strong enough to support the weight of their gear while, at the same time, retaining the appearance of a nicely balanced garment.
Edgar Robinson’s 1891 US design for a policeman’s coat with sturdy pockets
Protection against attacks, it appears, was to be provided through external accessories like an ‘improved hand–shield’ patented in 1912 by Robert Gladstone from Liverpool to be used ‘against attacks by mobs […] against being struck by missiles, or blows from stones [and] bottles’.
Since it would be made of metal, Gladstone claims that his hand-shield would be ‘practically bullet proof’ (Pat. GB191208707A).
A 1912 ‘Improved Hand-Shield’ by Robert Gladstone from Liverpool, UK.
One particular piece of apparel to which inventors paid recurring attention are special gloves for police officers. Some gloves allow police to administer electric shocks to attackers and those resisting arrest. Others are equipped with special weights to reinforce slaps dealt out by the wearer.
A 1961 US patent called ‘Policeman’s Glove’ explicitly highlights the convenience of the latter type. The glove is described as an effective but subtle tool for subduing people because it ‘inflict[s] minimum damage or other injuries’ and thus ‘prevents scorn and indignation from onlookers’.
Apparently, as the patent suggests, such reactions from onlookers had been quite common in instances where the police had applied physical force using fists or clubs. A simple ‘unobtrusive open-handed slap’ with this glove, however, would allow the officer to gain control over a person while conveniently obscuring the use of violence (Pat. US3108285A).
1961 US patent for weighted police gloves to effectively subdue potential attackers
From the 1990s onwards, patents in our database that include the term ‘police’ increasingly appear to centre on garments intended to protect the wearer against physical threats to the body such as punches, stabbing, bullets, electric shocks and even flying Molotov cocktails.
This could be because police officers happened to find themselves more regularly in dangerous situations and subject to life-threatening attacks. Indeed, the language used in some of these patents would suggest so as they talk about combat and body armour respectively, thus implying a connection between policing, war and active fighting.
However, this change in focus in clothing patents may also be linked to government-financed initiatives of police militarisation. According to Jonathan Mummolo and other scholars, these initiatives involved a ‘combination of equipment, tactics, and culture that centers on violent conflict’ and led police to ‘varying degrees adopting weapons, attire, tactics, and organizational structures developed for theaters of war’ (2018, 9182).
Police departments especially in the US, but also across other countries started to mirror the military, not only in the way they performed and administered their duties but also visibly in the way police officers were clothed for duty.
Tactical vests like the one below from Czechoslovakia patented in 1995 are promoted for their suitability to soldiers as well as police officers, suggesting that these roles are similar (Pat. CZ4264 U1).
Lubor Novota and Jan Bigel’s Czech 1996 patent for a Tactical Vest.
The same can be said for a 2005 US ‘ballistic combat uniform’ that is to be worn with a ballistic vest by police or military in a ‘combat or tactical environment’ (Pat. US7992221).
In sum, police apparently not only militarised its structures and practices, but refashioned its uniforms along with it.
Mummolo, J. 2018. Militarization fails to enhance police safety or reduce crime but may harm police reputation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 115(37), 9181–9186. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1805161115