Paris police will fight crime -- without their kepis

The kepi, that navy blue, salt-box cap that has become the identifying mark of the Parisian police, is about to disappear.

It is a casualty of changing styles -- of a spreading desire in police ranks to project a new and more modern image and maybe even make a dent in the current crime wave as well.

For several months, a special commission has been working to design a completely new police outfit for some 80,000 uniformed officers who work in the country's urban areas, most notably Paris.

The commission, created by France's new Socialist government, includes members of the urban police. And although its final choice is still to be made, several decisions are now certain - including a respectful retirement of the venerable kepi.

''The kepi, with its ties to yesterday's police officer and police work, has been rejected by a large majority of the police,'' says Emile Poligne, secretary for the Paris region of the Syndicat General de la Police (General Police Union). ''The commission recognizes this, and is looking at caps which will be at the same time more practical and more reflective of the public's image of modern, efficient police work.''

Other changes to be incorporated into the new uniform, include making the police officer's revolver visible. The assigned pistol is now carried discreetly under a navy-blue, bronze-buttoned coat.

Other changes include a return to the billy club for officers on walking beats. All these changes reflect a growing concern among the public and government officials over the issue of safety.

A steady increase in violent street crimes and growing doubt, according to public opinion polls, about the security of the city's streets - especially in the heavily frequented pedestrian malls of the French capital's Halles-Beaubourg area and Latin Quarter - have received considerable attention here recently.

The city's mayor, Jacques Chirac, has even threatened to stop his ambitious project to create Europe's largest network of urban pedestrian walkways, and to form a municipal police force in addition to the national urban police, if improvements in safety are not forthcoming.

But police officials believe the updated police uniform -- expected to appear on the streets next fall -- will change the public's image of the police and help the police work with the public to help meet the crime problem.

''The models we are looking at will not only be more functional and less severe,'' says Mr. Poligne, ''but most important, they will mean a total break with the past and the image that past has left of the French policeman.''

The average Paris police officer, in his early 30s, is keenly aware of the youthful, competent, and relaxed but authoritative image that movies and television have created of the American police officer, Mr. Poligne says.

On the other hand, he adds, French films have generally perpetuated the idea of the French policeman as a ''guignol'' -- the name of the Punch and Judy character which in slang can mean both ''police officer'' and ''buffoon.''

In fact, officials say they hope the uniform change will facilitate communication between the police and French youth. They argue that adolescents will identify more readily with an officer in a multicolored uniform -- possibly mixing a blue uniform with a white shirt -- including a modern waist jacket and cap.

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