In 1968, the police department in Menlo Park, California hired a new police chief. His name was Victor Cizanckas and his main goal was to reform the department, which had a strained relationship with the community at the time.
The 1960s had been a turbulent decade in Menlo Park, a small city with wide suburban streets and manicured lawns just south of San Francisco. There were big student-led, anti-war demonstrations at nearby Stanford University. Leaders in the African-American communities of Belle Haven and East Palo Alto were organizing to demand better treatment and services. After years of clashing with protesters, the police department didn’t have the best reputation.
Cizanckas wanted to rebuild trust with the community — and he made a number of changes to improve the department’s image. One of the most ground-breaking and controversial was the new blazer-style uniform he implemented.
For many years, the Menlo Park police had worn some variation of the traditional, pseudo-military, dark blue uniform. But Cizanckas thought that look was too intimidating and aggressive, so he traded it for slacks, dress shirts with ties, and a blazer. Guns and handcuffs remained hidden under the coat. Instead of a metal badge, the blazer sported an embroidered patch that looked a little like a coat of arms.
In their new blazer uniforms, the Menlo Park police looked more like preppy college students (or detectives) than traditional law enforcement officers. Some even sported pocket protectors with the Menlo Park police logo on them that would slide into the pocket of their dress shirts.
But the new look was only the most visible reform that Cizanckas introduced. He also hired new officers with higher levels of education and from non-traditional law enforcement backgrounds. Several of his recruits had attended the Jesuit seminary in Menlo Park. He emphasized community outreach and required beat officers to take on investigative duties that had traditionally been covered by detectives. He also changed the organizational language of the department, using corporate titles instead of military ones. “Sergeants” became “managers,” for example, and “lieutenants” became “directors.” Officers in the department had mixed feelings about all these changes, but the uniform may have been the most contentious.
That’s because uniforms not only shape how people see the police, but also how police see themselves. In challenging an image so entrenched in the style and psyche of police officers, Chief Cizanckas was bucking a tradition that would prove hard to change: a uniform whose history was interwoven with the profession it represented and that went back more than a hundred years.
Back in colonial days, American law enforcement looked very different than it does today. In New England, informal (and non-uniformed) groups of able-bodied men patrolled neighborhoods, looking for crime, fires, and other disturbances. These groups were typically known as “The Watch.” In southern communities before the Civil War, roving slave patrols suppressed slave revolts and tracked down runaways. These patrols typically worked for large plantation owners, so policing in the south was tied closely to the institution of slavery.
These unofficial patrols are how early law enforcement worked for decades in the United States and much of Europe. Modern policing only began to emerge in the 1820s, influenced by the thinking of a British statesman named Sir Robert Peel.
Before Peel, law enforcement in London was disorganized, much as it was in the United States. Peel wanted to create more a formalized and professional police department that adhered to certain standards. These would eventually become known as the “Peelian Principles.”
After years of pushing for reform, Peel helped found the London Metropolitan Police in 1829. British officers are still known as “bobbies” in honor of Robert “Bobby” Peel. In Ireland they’re often called “Peelers” with a little less affection.
Peel required his officers to wear uniforms that would distinguish them from the citizens they were meant to serve, but he was also sensitive to how the British people might perceive this new police force. He didn’t want them to be mistaken for an occupying army. In an effort to make the new uniforms stand apart from the red coats of the British military, he opted for a color that would contrast: blue.
Gradually, Peel’s ideas — and the iconic blue uniform — made their way to the United States. By the early 1900s, police departments across the country had adopted aspects of the policies and style pioneered by the London Metropolitan Police. This included a quasi-military hierarchical structure and the goal of crime prevention. Still, the system was far from perfect.
Most early police departments in America allied themselves with the rich and powerful, including local politicians and business leaders. Many departments operated on a patronage model: newly-elected mayors would hand-pick new police chiefs, who, in turn, would hire family and friends to be their officers. In most departments, recruits didn’t receive any special training; they were often just handed a badge and a nightstick and sent out on patrol.
A reform movement began to grow in communities across the country. And then, in 1929, President Herbert Hoover assembled the Wickersham Commission, a group tasked with conducting the first national study of the American criminal justice system. The commission uncovered abuse and corruption throughout the system and brought these issues into mainstream discussion. Spurred by the findings detailed by the Commission, a new and more professional era of policing was born. Proponents of professionalism emphasized better training, more discipline, the use of modern tools and technologies, and codes of conduct and protocols that they hoped would help police better serve their communities.
One of the leading voices for police professionalism was August Vollmer, the first police chief of Berkeley, CA and an author of the Wickersham Report. Vollmer required officers to use motorcycles and patrol cars (rather than patrolling on foot) in order to cover larger areas more efficiently. He was also one of the first police chiefs in the United States to insist his department use high-tech methods like fingerprint, blood, and fiber analysis to help solve crimes. Under Vollmer’s influence, California became a hotbed of police reform from the 1920s through the 1960s. Leading, of course, to experiments like Victor Cizanckas’ blazer uniforms.
For a time, the reforms Chief Cizanckas had implemented seemed to be working. Cizanckas told the New York Times in 1972 that officer morale was up and that community satisfaction with the department had increased. Certainly, his officers looked less intimidating. An early study even suggested that altercations between citizens and police had declined because of the new uniform. The study’s findings were eventually challenged, but not before news of the reform’s success spread, and a few other departments across the country adopted blazer style.
At the same time, the blazer uniform created divisions within the Menlo Park Police Department. Some of the older, more traditional officers missed the dark blue, military-style uniform and all that it represented. Others complained that community members got confused about whether officers were actually law enforcement. Others had problems with the deeper changes to the organization and hierarchy of the department. Many officers quit to take jobs with other law enforcement agencies in the area.
In the late 1970s, Chief Cizanckas also moved on, taking a new job with the Stamford Police Department in Connecticut. Not long after he left, the Menlo Park Police Department switched back to the more traditional uniform style… Cizanckas passed away in 1980.
The year that Cizanckas joined the Menlo Park Police Department, 1968, represented an important turning point for law enforcement in the United States. The community policing approach championed by Cizanckas would continue to gain traction through the 1980s and 1990s, as departments across the country tried to build better, less combative relationships with their local communities.
But there had always been a tension between the more community-oriented side of the policing and the more military side. And that was about to intensify.
In 1968, Richard Nixon ran for president on a promise of “Law and Order,” tapping into the paranoia and unease that had grown during the turmoil of the 1960s. His campaign ads featured images of urban unrest and rioting, and many ended with his slogan: Vote Like Your Whole World Depended On It. Shortly after taking office, Nixon vowed to fight the “War on Crime,” which had been started by his predecessor Lyndon Johnson. He also declared a “War on Drugs.”
The rhetoric of “war” influenced the way many police departments across the country approached their work. War also requires specialized equipment — and in the late 1960s, the government established the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, a now-defunct federal agency that gave money to local police departments to buy heavy-duty, crime fighting tools, including riot gear, bulletproof vests, armored vehicles, and weapons.
The trend towards militarization continued through the 1980s and 1990s. It accelerated in many places after September 11th, as police departments became closer with federal law enforcement agencies and started thinking of themselves as part of the first line of defense in a new war: the “War on Terror.” New federal programs emerged that sent surplus military equipment from Iraq and Afghanistan to local police departments across the country.
More recently, there have been highly-publicized protests against police shootings of unarmed African-American men, women, and children. These protests have sparked bigger conversations about police violence — and also the militarized appearance of our police.
The current mistrust of police seems to mirror what was going on in Menlo Park back in the early 1960s, but on a more dramatic scale. Today, at least so far, no departments have taken steps as drastic as Cizanckas did at that time. But the Minneapolis Police Department recently took a small step in that general direction.
In February of 2016, the Minneapolis Police Department changed the color of their SWAT uniforms from a military green to a more traditional navy blue. This happened about four months after the city saw widespread protests after the police shot and killed an unarmed black man named Jamar Clark. Police officers involved said Clark was attempting to arm himself by reaching for an officer’s gun. Some witnesses said Clark was handcuffed at the time of the shooting. Local and federal investigations have been conducted and no criminal or civil rights charges have been filed against the officers.
Of course, the tensions between police and the communities they serve can’t be solved by a uniform change alone. But a change in uniform can be an important symbol — a way for police departments to signal that they want to be more approachable and that they care about how they are perceived.
In the case of Chief Cizanckas in Menlo Park, the uniform experiment did help lead to bigger changes. Requiring officers to wear blazers meant a certain kind of officer was drawn to the police department — the kind who was willing to get on board with the more significant reforms Cizanckas wanted to make.
Even though the Menlo Park Police Department eventually abandoned the blazers, some of the bigger changes stuck. Most notably, the Menlo Park experiment helped pave the road for a community policing ethos that continues to shape a number of departments in the area today.