The Blazer Experiment

Roman Mars:
This is 99% invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
In 1968 the police department in Menlo Park, California, hired a new police chief. His name was Victor Cizanckas.

Delaney Hall:
And chiefs Cizanckas’s main goal was to reform the police department’s image, which wasn’t great at the time.

Roman Mars:
That’s our own Delaney Hall.

Delaney Hall:
Because this was the 1960s and even in Menlo Park, a small city with manicured lawns and wide suburban streets, it had been a turbulent decade.

Roman Mars:
There were big student-led anti-war demonstrations at Stanford University, which is right nearby. Joan Baez, the folk singer created a commune called Struggle Mountain at the foothills above the city, and leaders in the African-American community were organizing protests to demand a better treatment and services.

Delaney Hall:
The Menlo Park police had clashed with these protestors, sometimes violently. And after years and years of this, the department had a pretty rough reputation.

Dominick Peloso:
Had a reputation for being a very tough police department, a very aggressive police department, and somewhat of a very anti-race police department.

Delaney Hall:
That’s Dominick Peloso. He was hired in 1970 by Chief Cizanckas. The guy who wanted to change this culture.

Dominick Peloso:
He’s one of these type of guys that would come into a room and we just fill in the room, and everybody sits back and says, “Ah, I think we better listen and go along with this guy.”

Roman Mars:
Chiefs Cizanckas hired Dominic right out of the Jesuit seminary, where Dominic had been studying to be a priest. Cizanckas liked hiring officers from non-traditional law enforcement backgrounds and with higher levels of education. It was just one of his strategies for reforming the department.

Delaney Hall:
He also let us officers grow their hair out and have beards and mustaches. He changed all the pseudo-military titles to more corporate ones. Sergeants became managers for example, and lieutenants became directors.

Roman Mars:
Officers in the department had mixed feelings about all of these changes, but one with more controversial than the others.

Delaney Hall:
For a long time, officers in Menlo Park had worn a variation of the traditional dark blue police uniform. But chiefs Cizanckas thought that style was too intimidating and aggressive.

Roman Mars:
So the chief came up with something totally different.

Dominick Peloso:
It was really a nice dark green blazer with some black thread in it. We wore pastel-colored solid shirts with a tie and slacks.

Roman Mars:
Instead of a metal badge, the blazers sported an embroidered patch that looked like a coat of arms. Guns and handcuffs remained hidden under the jacket. All in all the officers look like grown-up prep school students, but with guns. They even had pocket protectors with the Menlo Park police logo on it, that would slide into the pocket of their dress shirts.

Delaney Hall:
It seems like the total effect is he was trying to demilitarize the look and attitude of the department.

Dominick Peloso:
Yeah, I think that would be a correct statement. A lot of the guys who joined police departments are from the military and because of the nature of the work it can be very militaristic in organization and training and all those kinds of things, and he was trying to calm it down.

Delaney Hall:
But chiefs Cizanckas was also messing with a tradition that would prove extremely hard to change because the blue military style uniform had a history that went back more than a hundred years.

Roman Mars:
What we’ve asked police officers to wear over the years, says a lot about what we’ve expected of them, and how we feel about them. It even says a lot about how they feel about themselves.

Delaney Hall:
Back in America’s colonial days, law enforcement looked really different than it does now. In New England, there were these informal groups generally known as The Watch, that patrolled neighborhoods looking for crime.

Dr. Chad Posick:
No uniforms, no sort of organizational policies that they had to follow. Basically every able man.

Roman Mars:
Chad Posick teaches in the department of criminal justice and criminology at Georgia Southern University.

Dr. Chad Posick:
If they saw somebody that needed help, a fire crime on the corner, it would just be an informal group that would respond to that.

Delaney Hall:
So, that was in the North. In Southern communities leading up to the civil war, there were roving patrols that were responsible for suppressing slave revolts and tracking down runaway slaves. They worked for large plantation owners.

Dr. Chad Posick:
So very much in the South, early policing was tied to slavery. Where in the North, it was more policing crime in these large urban areas.

Roman Mars:
These unofficial patrols were how early law enforcement worked for decades. It wasn’t until the 1820s that modern policing began to take shape. Thanks to a British statesman named Sir Robert Peel.

Delaney Hall:
Before Peel came along, policing in London looked a lot like it did in colonial America. Informal and loosely organized. And Peel recognized that there were problems with this model.

Dr. Chad Posick:
People not taking it seriously, being drunk on the job, not showing up, falling asleep, and so he wanted to do is create a police department that was based on certain principles.

Roman Mars:
And after years of pushing for reform, Peel succeeded. In 1829, he helped found the London Metropolitan Police, the first modern full-time citywide police department. British officers are still known as bobbies in honor of Robert Bobby Peel.

Delaney Hall:
In Ireland, they called them peelers, with a little less affection.

Roman Mars:
Peel required his officers to wear uniforms that would distinguish them from citizens they were meant to serve. But Peel was also sensitive to how British people might perceive this new police force.

Dr. Chad Posick:
Yes, that was a huge concern because for so many years the people were ruled by the military in a military state.

Delaney Hall:
Peel wanted the new police uniforms to stand apart from the red coats of the British military.

Dr. Chad Posick:
That’s how got our first blue uniform that was very professional looking. And it actually stood in stark contrast to the red that you saw with the military.

Delaney Hall:
Gradually Peel’s ideas and his blue uniform made their way to the United States. By the early 1900s, police departments across the country had adopted aspects of the style and approach pioneered by the London Metropolitan Police. This included a quasi-military structure and the goal of crime prevention. But there were still some problems.

Roman Mars:
Most early police departments in the US aligned themselves with the rich and the powerful, like local politicians and business leaders, and you might be thinking, “It’s still like that now.” And you might be right. But it was worse then.

Delaney Hall:
Like, a new mayor would get elected, and then would appoint a handpicked police chief.

Dr. Chad Posick:
Then the police chief would hire their family, their friends to become the officers of that department. So very political and obviously – through the police chiefs who worked for, the mayor, the local politician – you’re going to serve their purposes first and the community maybe secondarily.

Delaney Hall:
It was a patronage system and in most departments, recruits didn’t receive any special training. They were just handed a badge and a nightstick and sent out on patrol.

Roman Mars:
Despite the spiffy new uniforms and their newly organized approach, public trust in the police was dismal.

Delaney Hall:
So a reform movement begins to grow across America. And then in 1929, President Herbert Hoover convenes a group called the Wickersham Commission to conduct the first national study of the American criminal justice system. They look at the system from top to bottom.

Dr. Chad Posick:
And they basically saw the infiltration of politics into policing as a huge problem, and they said, “We need to change up how we do things.”

Roman Mars:
The Wickersham report shocked the country by exposing widespread police abuse. It described police routinely beating suspects and holding them illegally for lengthy questioning. And you might be thinking, “It’s still like that now.” And you might be right, but it was worse then.

Delaney Hall:
The report included some pretty disturbing accounts. Like a suspect who was held by the ankles from a third-story window and another who was forced to stand in the morgue with his hands on the body of a murder victim.

Dr. Chad Posick:
This report, the Wickersham Report, really was this turning point. We need to do something different in policing, and I think that’s what led into this professional era.

Roman Mars:
This new professional era, which continued up until the 1960s and 70s was characterized by the emphasis on policing as a skilled profession. This old educational film called “War Police” lays it out.

Film Excerpt:
“Police departments use modern science to protect you, such as teletype, photography, two-way radio, expert firearms training as standardized by the FBI’s National Academy, accident prevention installations and other-”

Delaney Hall:
Now, police were trained to use modern tools and technology. And one of the leading voices for this new method was a guy named August Vollmer. He’d been the first police chief of Berkeley, California, and he helped to write the Wickersham Report. Vollmer got his officers to use motorcycles and patrol cars instead of just walking around. That way they could cover bigger areas more efficiently. He was also one of the first chiefs in the US to insist his department use fingerprinting and blood and fiber analysis to help solve crimes.

Roman Mars:
And under his influence, California became a hotbed of police reform from the 1920s through the 1960s, leading of course to stuff like chiefs Cizanckas’s blazer uniform experiment in Menlo Park.

Delaney Hall:
For a few years, it seemed like chief Cizanckas’s reforms might be working. In blazers and ties and pocket protectors, the Menlo Park police definitely looked less intimidating. Here’s Dominick Peloso again. He eventually became assistant chief under Cizanckas.

Dominick Peloso:
It wasn’t like we slacked off and became, like, oh mercy and forgiveness and love and peace and all that stuff. Oh no. But the way we did it and the style that we gave to people I think made them feel a lot better about us. And he built up a lot of really good rapport with the community.

Roman Mars:
There was even an early study suggesting that altercations between citizens and the police had declined because of the blazers. The study was later challenged, but when it first came out, word began to spread and a few other departments across the country adopted the blazer style.

Delaney Hall:
But the uniform experiment also drew a line within the department. On one side there were the guys like Dominic, who liked what the blazers stood for. They embraced that Chief Cizanckas wanted the department to have a calmer, more professional image.

Dr. Chad Posick:
There is a lot of guys who want to do this job but don’t want to go out there and knock heads or shoot people or whatever like that. They just want to do the best for the community. And I think with our uniform, people who were applying got more the sense that we really were community-minded, helping people.

Roman Mars:
On the other side were the old school police officers who missed the traditional uniform and all that it represented.

Dr. Chad Posick:
They enjoyed the ego stuff that goes with it. They also enjoyed that sense of authority that would show, the clearness of who they are.

Roman Mars:
With the blazer, it just wasn’t always that clear.

Sergeant Van Trask
I’d stop a person, let’s say for a violation, and I’d walk up and said, “Can I see your license?” And they’d look and me and say, “Well, let’s see your license. Who are you?” Then you’d point to the little badge and say, “Well, I’m the police, you know.”

Roman Mars:
This is retired Sergeant Van Trask. He worked under Cizanckas and generally he liked the chief’s style and approach, but he admits that it caused some complications.

Sergeant Van Trask
You didn’t have that much recognition as a cop, so there’s a tendency to get more, “Who are you?”, you know. “I’m the police,” you know. “Sure you are.”

Roman Mars:
Many officers got so frustrated that they quit. The numbers we’ve heard on this vary. Van said about half the department left. Dominick thinks it was even higher.

Dominick Peloso:
I would guess that in his first four years as police chief, we had about a 75% turnover. People just left and went to other departments.

Sergeant Van Trask
I think they just couldn’t take his overall thinking. His out-of-the-box thinking, his philosophy and stuff. So they all just abandoned.

Delaney Hall:
And eventually, Cizanckas left too. To take over as the chief of a police department in Stamford, Connecticut.

Dominick Peloso:
You know, there’s some talk that he was actually encouraged to leave.

Roman Mars:
And not long after he left, the department switched back to the traditional uniform style. Cizanckas passed away in 1980.

Delaney Hall:
The year that Cizanckas joined the Menlo Park police department, 1968, represented an important turning point for law enforcement in the US. The community policing approach championed by Cizanckas would continue to gain traction through the 80s and 90s as departments across the country tried to build better, less combative relationships with their local communities.

Roman Mars:
But there had always been a tension between the more community-oriented side of policing and the more military side, and that was about to intensify.

Richard Nixon:
“In recent years, crime in this country has grown nine times as fast as population. At the current rate, the crimes of violence in America will double by 1972. We cannot accept that kind of future for America.”

Delaney Hall:
In 1968, Richard Nixon ran for president on a promise of law and order. He tapped into all the paranoia and unease that had grown during the turmoil of the 1960s. His campaign ads were full of these scary images of urban unrest and rioting, and they ended with his slogan written across the screen, ‘Vote Like Your Whole World Depended on It’.

Richard Nixon:
“I pledge to you, the wave of crime is not going to be the wave of the future in America.”

Roman Mars:
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. Again, criminal justice professor, Chad Posick.

Chad Posick:
One, I think the language is very important, right? You don’t have, say drug prevention or crime prevention. It’s the war. War on drugs, the war on crime. So you do see an escalation during this time on how crime is responded to. And it’s responded to like they’re responding to war.

Delaney Hall:
War, of course, requires specialized equipment. And around the same time, the government established the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, a now-defunct Federal Agency that gave lots of money to local police departments so they could buy new-fangled crime-fighting tools.

Dr. Chad Posick:
You see this optic and support for all sorts of policing, but especially riot gear and SWAT teams and armored vehicles and weapons and bulletproof vests and those types of things.

Roman Mars:
Even small rural departments were getting their hands on stuff like helicopters and serious crowd control gear like shields and helmets.

Delaney Hall:
And new paramilitary divisions of the police, like SWAT teams began using this gear. Some exchanged the traditional blue uniform for camouflage outfits known as the battle dress uniform. They began to look more military. As this kind of equipment and style spread, so did more militarized policing tactics.

Dr. Chad Posick:
Conducting raids, crackdowns, and partially enforcing laws; and they’re behind the mask that they wear and riot gear or the big huge vests that they wear in the SWAT team.

Roman Mars:
This trend continued to the 80s and 90s in lots of police departments across the country. It accelerated in many places after 9/11 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.

Delaney Hall:
Which brings us to today.

News Report:
“This crowd has grown very agitated because the police just arrested someone. They’re basically confronting the police. Yelling at them over this arrest.”

Roman Mars:
Across the country, there had been highly publicized protests against police shootings of unarmed black men, women and even children. And these protests have sparked bigger conversations about police violence and also how our police look.

News Report:
“For several nights this week, this was Ferguson Missouri. Tanks, combat gear, assault rifles. It looked like a military operation.”

Delaney Hall:
The current mistrust of police seems to mirror what was going on in Menlo Park back in 1968, pre-blazer, but on a more dramatic scale. Back in the 1960s, it was big conversations about the role of police in the community that led chief Cizanckas to make changes to the Menlo Park uniform.

Roman Mars:
Today, at least so far, no departments have taken steps that drastic, but in Minneapolis they’re taking a small step in that general direction.

News Report:
“Minneapolis SWAT teams will soon unveil a new look to make them appear less intimidating.”

Delaney Hall:
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.

Roman Mars:
The Minneapolis police department declined to talk with us about the uniform change, but they made it clear in other interviews that this color change is about public perception and rebranding.

Minneapolis PD Representative:
“We are police. We are not military. We don’t train with the military. We’re not associated with military. We’re the Minneapolis police department and we want to be reflective of our own community and our own image.”

Roman Mars:
What’s not totally clear is if the color of the uniform actually matters.

Kandace Montgomery:
I mean, they could wear pink, but if they’re toting guns and rubber bullets and mist and tasers and everything else …?

Delaney Hall:
This is Kandace Montgomery. She’s an activist with Black Lives Matter, and she’s taken part in protests in Minneapolis against the police.

Kandace Montgomery:
A color is not going to change that dynamic. An entire overhaul of the policing system is going to change that dynamic in people’s responses.

Roman Mars:
Of course, the problems police are facing today cannot be solved by uniform change alone, but a change in uniform can be an important symbol. A way for police departments to signal to their communities that they want to have a better relationship.

Delaney Hall:
In the case of chief Cizanckas and 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 that Cizanckas wanted to make. And even though the department eventually abandoned the blazers, many of the other changes stuck. Here’s former Menlo Park assistant chief Dominick Peloso, again.

Dominick Peloso:
Vic was definitely ahead of his time. And as with most people who are ahead of their time you don’t have a crowd of people that all stand up and cheer for you. But it would be very interesting because within, I’d say 10 or 15 years, almost every police department in our area, even though they didn’t change the uniform or the titles or the organizational chart, were taking on that real big community policing thing. They went ahead and did it because that was the signs of the times.

  1. Scott

    I wonder if one point of contention was that the blazers were an ugly shade of brown rather than the dark blue that’s traditional for both police forces and blazers.

  2. Mike

    I really dig Rhode Island’s uniforms. They have a nice traditional look and still set them apart as the police. Plus none of the variations are threatening, apart from the one for the SWAT team. But tactical teams associated with the police retain a similar appearance in many other countries as well, so I suppose it’s not a bad thing.

  3. Jim

    Any other fans had issues playing this episode using safari 9.0.3 on OSx 10.11.3 or thereabout? Had no issues on chrome.

  4. George

    The NYPD switched from navy to powder blue uniforms in 1972 but switched back in 1995. According to the New York Times:

    “The department switched from navy to powder blue in 1972 to give the force a softer look after race riots that broke out in cities around the country. But police officials said they found that the light blue shirts all too often showed stains from the jelly doughnuts officers ate for breakfast and the pizza they ate between patrols.”

  5. Jeff A

    It would have been nice to have the full story told about the Jamar Clark case…if you bring it up in the light of “an unarmed black man was shot” you should at least complete the full story. Both the local and federal investigations found that Jamar Clark was attempting to arm himself by grabbing at an officer’s gun. The investigations were complete by the airing of this show, there is zero excuse for trying to push a false narrative.

    http://www.mprnews.org/story/2016/06/01/jamar-clark-civil-rights-inquiry

    1. Delaney Hall

      Jeff and Todd: Thanks for your comments. We’ve updated the article with a few more sentences and links to fill out a more complete picture of the Jamar Clark incident.

  6. Gary

    Nationally, a pretty decent portion of our police are sheriff deputies, who usually wear brown, tan, or green, and in rural areas, it’s not uncommon for the pants to be jeans. I wonder if that makes a difference in how they are perceived.

    One counter-trend that I find interesting is police wearing shorts and polo shirts, or similar uniforms, in hotter climates. Some places this might be limited to bicycle patrols but in others it’s more widespread. If you had told me in the 1970s that police might be wearing short pants I’d have questioned your sanity.

  7. Gunther

    In the movie, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, the cops wore a white shirt instead of a blue one. In my opinion, it made them more approachable.

  8. Gunther

    I think that the Rhode Island state police are somewhat intimidating because of the boots, the campaign hats, and the Sam Browne belts. Because of this clothing attire, the striking workers of the 1920s called the various state police “Cossacks.” If the Nazis Party had come into existence before the 1920s, I am sure that the state police would have been called the Gestapo or Nazis by the striking workers instead of calling them Cossacks.

    1. Steve Davis

      re the resemblance of some police uniforms to military, a line from the film “The Departed”, in which a plainclothes officer asks another cop in full Massachusetts State Police uniform:
      “You got a nice suit at home or do you like coming to work everyday dressed like you’re gonna invade Poland?”

  9. nick anderson

    I think its important to look at this phenomenon from a perspective of incentive versus disincentive on the part of the police forces. Confrontations are basically incentivized by way of first validating law enforcements decisions regarding equipment (“See, we told you we needed these”) and then more funding and similar equipment flows, they get emboldened, and this leads to more relationship strain and confrontation, and it happens all over again. They have no incentive to look less aggressive, because they’re rewarded and “justified” by confrontation.

  10. Reddish

    Great story. Got me thinking. I was expecting a counter-point to the militarization trend in that community policing has been credited with secular reduction in certain types of crime. I don’t know the role that uniforms play in this, but walking the beat and talking with people is part of it which is so different from the separation created by paramilitary uniforms, equipment and vehicles. Really, I’m putting my hand up to suggest that there is an important additional theme here.

    1. MB

      I can’t help but laugh at that. The truth is that BLM is rooted in hate. BLM chants advocate the blanket killing of cops. That is not “activism” by any stretch of the imagination. It’s efforts are directed only at the police implying that only cops kill black people when in fact the ratio of black people killing other black people over such things as tennis shoes or a particular brand of sunglasses totally eclipses the actual unjustified killings by police. BLM is nothing more than a Hate Group attempting to be legitimate. The media, like this organization posting this story bears much of the responsibility for the rioting in Ferguson and other locations. The constant coverage and methods of reporting serves only to inflame people with the obvious hope of increasing the unrest to increase viewer and/or readership to justify more advertising to increase income… The verification of facts no longer matter While being the first to report does. Even when facts come forward that can show events did not occur as originally reported there is considerable delay in reporting that information. Why? One can only assume to keep the fires of unrest fanned and blazing. I do not subscribe to that new term about the media… “Fake News”. However, I do subscribe to the media adopting an old theme… Honesty and Accuracy in Reporting.

  11. William

    I love the production value of these shows and I certainly love learning about how design affects our daily lives however, I really cannot stand how you alway manage to push a very anti-police, anti-conservative, liberal agenda into each of your shows. At some point in just about every episode is a moment where I roll my eyes, stupefied as to how you managed to warp a show about uniform colour into an anti-police, pro-BLM manifesto.

    I love the show and I enjoy just about every episode very thoroughly but the overwhelming liberal agenda leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

    1. JG

      Likewise. I thought I’d found a podcast I could listen to regularly, then I hear “and now, Black Lives Matter ACTIVIST…”
      Activist?! No, that hate group are not activists.
      I’m not going to listen to or download any more of your podcasts.

    2. Sarah

      Yes black lives matter is an activist organization not a hate group, J.G. I mean that fact that you even said that is completely and utterly ridiculous. So because I happen to be a nice person and you seem to lack critical thinking skills, let me break it down for you.

      Black Lives Matter is just an easier way of saying “Please stop killing black people because black people are people too”. If anyone considers that hate speech, well I’m just gonna have to pray for them because there really is nothing left to do. Ignorance has gotten the best of them.

  12. Driveby

    “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.”
    Any lack of Irish affection has nothing to do with the Met, or British police at all; it derives from the Robert Peel-founded Royal Irish Constabulary, founded more than a decade before the Met during his tenure as Chief Secretary for Ireland.

  13. Tom

    To Those Monitoring This Page,

    It looks like you have a defunct YouTube video embedded. JSYK…

    Thanks! I always enjoy the show and the hard work you put into the stories.

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