For Israeli Police, Uniform Style Comes With a Price

It's always been a challenge to be a cop in Israel; now, with the force's new, mostly synthetic uniforms, policemen may look sexier, but they're a helluva lot less comfortable.

At one of the social-protest rallies held recently in Tel Aviv, I overheard a conversation among a group of young people.

police - Daniel Bar-On - September 9 2011
Daniel Bar-On

"Their uniforms look great," commented a man of about 20, as he looked at representatives of the Israel Police who were standing on the sidelines, keeping an eye on him and other protesters.

"I don't know," answered his friend, who clearly possessed a highly developed sense of style. "They look a little like the cops in an American TV series. Tell me, is it just me, or is it true that since they got new uniforms, they also behave more respectably?"

The only woman in the group agreed with him. She said it was no mean feat to remain calm and polite when you go around in mid-August dressed in a uniform of heavy, mostly synthetic material.

In their new uniform, which entered full use earlier this year, the patrol and traffic policemen look like the real thing - the tough patrolmen of the NYPD, whom we have become used to from American movies and TV. These outfits, in navy-blue material that sometimes appears to be black, give them a more uniform and impressive look. Part of it has to do with the type of fabric used, which is rather coarse and wrinkle-proof.

police - Archive - September 9 2011

Those very same characteristics have made the new uniforms less popular among those who are supposed to wear them for long hours. The slacks and short-sleeved shirts are made of 75 percent polyester and 25 percent wool, while the long-sleeved shirts are made of 100 percent polyester - and not of the sophisticated variety that wicks away sweat.

Most of the policemen I stopped in the street, on one of August's hottest and humid days, would not discuss their new uniforms at any length. They did, however, confirm that the fabric used is not of the highest quality. Some of them even complained of skin problems developing after they wore the uniforms for many hours.

In discussions on policemen's Internet forums, the cops are more at ease. "The policemen's uniforms are flammable, aren't they?" asked one concerned officer. "Why are they waiting for a disaster? Why not just throw the uniforms into the garbage?" After consulting a firefighter, who confirmed the flammability of the fabric, a colleague advised the worried policeman, and anyone else who is smart, to "call an insurance agent and take out life insurance."

Another surfer who identified himself as "The Fireman" suggested that from here on in, the police officers should be called hamadlikim ("cool" in slang, but literally "the igniters" ). And while someone suggested that they simply refuse to wear the new threads, and report for duty in their old blue uniforms, a surfer who identified herself simply as "The Policewoman" wrote: "Hey, cop, are you serious? What is this, summer camp? Perhaps tomorrow all the patrolmen should show up in bathing suits?"

police - Archive - September 9 2011

Lust and prejudice

A bathing suit doesn't quite meet the needs of patrolmen. (Perhaps the idea should be put to the volunteers in the Tel Aviv District, who cruise around town on rollerblades. ) But who said that order in the streets can be maintained only in long pants?

When the state was established, the police uniform was comprised of khaki shirts and shorts, accompanied by flat shoes and black socks that stretched almost to the knees. These were inherited from the British Mandate's police force, together with their insignia marking ranks.

Perhaps a policeman in shorts is less likely to deter law-breakers today, but there is still a big range of options between them and the American uniforms that inspired the new Israeli duds.

village people - Getty Images - September 9 2011
Getty Images

"They looked for new uniforms, and as is usually the case here, they saw what the Americans were doing and decided it was good enough for us too," said one local officer who preferred not to reveal his name.

It is doubtful whether he and his friends are aware of the meanings ascribed to policemen's uniforms in American pop culture. It all began with the buff police character in the 1970s' disco group Village People, which also boasted members dressed as a construction worker, a sailor, a motorcyclist and a cowboy, and up to the nude extras that accompanied the clip "Outside" by George Michael in the late '90s. Such men in uniform are often the objects for fetishist desire in the gay community.

Neither of the two Israel Police spokespeople - both the spokesman for the logistics branch and the chief spokesman - was willing to answer such questions from Haaretz as who designed the uniforms, what criteria were used, and why there was a need, at all, to replace the predecessor.

Pure polyester

Over the years the changes in police uniforms were almost always linked, somehow, with changes in those of the Israel Defense Forces. Thus, in the 1950s, for example, the winter wardrobe in both services included olive-colored shirts and pants and a khaki coat, while in summer, they wore uniforms in a lighter hue of khaki. In the 1960s, the color of the uniforms was changed from khaki to beige.

The uniforms that cops other than the patrolmen and traffic officers wear today - a light blue shirt and dark blue trousers - were put into use in the '90s, though they too underwent some recent changes. The police insignia patch now appears on both shirt sleeves, and in place of one seam in the back, the tops now have two. Police who staff the reception desks and those who serve the public in police headquarters around the country are expected to wear black ties. Another element that has been altered is the fabric. In place of a blend of 65-percent polyester and 35-percent cotton, the current shirts are also pure polyester.

"I don't know who chose them, but you don't have to be a genius to realize that uniforms made of dark canvas are not suitable for policemen working in the Middle East," said one officer.

When the new uniforms were first designed, in 2008, the then-police inspector general, David Cohen (today the force's commissioner ), said that "many considerations led to the final result, among them operational comfort, a representative appearance and an emphasis on specific suitability to the type of work done by the various sectors of the force."

An impressive appearance, for sure. No doubt about that. But when it comes to "operational comfort," as noted above, you don't need an in-depth understanding of the patrolman's precise responsibilities to conclude that an outfit made of synthetic fabric is not ideal for prolonged physical activity - even when you're staking out a suspect, sitting in an air-conditioned patrol car and eating doughnuts, like their TV colleagues overseas.

Another policeman suggested the change was designed to increase deterrence. "Turns out that the Israel Police does not strongly deter those whom it is supposed to deter and it was found that the problem is in the uniforms," he said. The same officer said that another reason, though it was never stated officially to the public, is the negative image of the patrol units.

"Although they are the most important policemen, the ones who provide the immediate response to citizens when they are in distress, and actually are the hardest-working people in the force, within the organization, patrolmen still lack a good image. Being a patrolman is an entry-level position for a police employee, and the conventional wisdom is that if you're still in that job for a long time and have not been promoted to a more senior position, there's probably something wrong with you. This is a misguided concept. These are people who work hard."

For the same reason, he said, he finds it hard to understand how the policemen who took part in testing the new uniforms before the final decision to use them, gave positive feedback. He said this mainly reflects the nature of such tests. "The moment you tell someone that he is taking part in a test, he feels more important and special and his opinion is affected immediately. This has been proven in research."

The same officer said that patrolmen in the field reacted so negatively to the new uniforms that the force is now considering the possibility of going back to their predecessor. In an official statement, the police spokesman told Haaretz that "about a year ago the Israel Police concluded a pilot in several police units that had received the new patrolmen's uniforms. Recently, following complaints about the quality of the fabric, the police inspector general instructed that the matter be re-examined."

Indeed, a closer examination of the uniforms is under way, but the possibility that they will be determined to be not suitable, and that a recommendation will be made to replace them, is unlikely. Re-outfitting the patrolmen and women reportedly cost the force some NIS 20 million. It would be a shame to have to send them back to China.