Outfitting the Bobby of the Future Meets With Resistance in Britain

Goodbye British bobby with domed, pressed-felt helmet and blue-serge tunic, and hello to the new-and-improved law enforcement officer in combat-ready gear.

Such, it appears, is the wave of the future for British police. The British bobby of the 21st century, police bosses say, should wear combat gear, including battle-dress blouson and a polystyrene hard hat complete with plastic eyeshield.

But getting rid of the uniform that has helped to bring reassurance to millions of Britons for well over a century is not going to happen without a struggle.

When the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) unveiled a new uniform design last month and urged that it be adopted within two years, it drew immediate criticism from representatives of cops on the beat.

The Metropolitan Police Federation condemned it as "daft" and swore to fight it. The federation took special exception to the attempt to condemn the current helmet, based on a 19th-century Prussian army hat, to the trash heap of history.

"Our members voted to keep the traditional headgear, not for a glorified cyclist's helmet," David French, the federation chairman, said.

'Magic T-shirt' and new shoes

He was less dismissive of other aspects of the ACPO design, however, including a "magic T-shirt" (covert protective vest) to deflect bullets and knives. There was a general welcome too, Mr. French admitted, for proposed lightweight boots to replace the clodhoppers worn by most bobbies.

Women police raised a cheer for the idea that for the first time they should be allowed to wear trousers on the beat instead of a skirt.

But when it came to the trademark helmet, French said, 56 percent of police were opposed to change. He explained that the Prussian-style headgear, in use since 1863, is a "powerful icon" of English police.

ACPO counters the "icon" argument with facts: #Even with a chinstrap, the present helmet has a nasty habit of falling off when an officer speeds up beyond walking pace.

More seriously, even when it is on a constable's head the old helmet offers very little protection, according to commissioner Bill Hughes, who coordinated the quest for a new uniform to meet police needs in the 21st century.

It does not meet British standards on impact absorption, whereas the proposed headgear is designed to protect from a blow from a baseball bat.

Mr. Hughes points out that the new headgear also has its own built-in radio and microphone.

But public reaction to abolishing the traditional helmet, Hughes maintains, is certain to be adverse.

Rambo cops?

John Wadham, director of the leading civil rights group Liberty, says the image of the police is in danger of changing from that of a force that helps the public to that of a group of people "set apart" and looking increasingly like Rambo Cops.

There may be something in Mr. Wadham's view.

In the last two years, pol#ice in Britain have started carrying American-style long-handled batons to replace the short truncheons in use since Prime Minister Robert Peel created England's first police force in 1828. (The name Bobby derives from the shortened version of Peel's given name.)

Within the same period, roving police vehicles with pistols and rifles at the ready have been routinely available in major cities for dealing with crimes of violence. Until then, guns were carried and used by police only wi#th special permission.

Thus, it remains to be seen how long, in an era of rising crime, the wish to maintain the police's user-friendly image can survive.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.