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Why Are Undercover Cops Wearing Such Bad Disguises?

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When it comes to their clothes, Birzer says that “for those types of assignments, [departments select] people that are going to reflect the individuals in the crowd. So if it’s a young group, younger age people predominantly in the group, they’re going to send younger officers in there that can kind of blend in better.”

So departments tell officers to wear their own clothes? “That’s pretty much it,” Birzer says. “If you’re working in a covert assignment, you want to wear clothes that kind of ‘fit in’ better. There’s no prescribed policy that you wear jeans or this or that—it’s just [based on] the situation.” In other words, this is, indeed, officers’ best impression of what a “normal” protester looks like.

As policing has become more militarized over the past two decades, with an emphasis on terrorism prevention, covert work has proliferated—and its message more tangled. Initially, undercover work was concentrated in narcotics and vice assignments, Birzer says, where departments have guidelines on grooming and wardrobes to help officers blend in. (That work, one imagines, presents its own set of ethical issues when it comes to blending through clothes.) For covert work done outside of those kinds of assignments, officers wore coats and ties. But following 9/11, covert work became more common as the police became more involved in investigating security threats. Now, Birzer says, “you see officers kind of ‘in between’” a vice squad wardrobe and an officer’s uniform.

Now, “identifying a police officer can be a little bit difficult at times,” Birzer says. The traditional blue police uniform was meant to be recognizable, so as to offer “a sense of security”—but he notes that, “for many now, that’s definitely not the case.” If anything, these failed undercover disguises underscore how police might also fail to mesh with the communities they are meant to protect even when they’re not in uniform.

Birzer has researched how the militarization of police uniforms over the past two decades has contributed to increased aggression, but he suggests working without a uniform has no corollary effect. “The research is fairly limited looking at covert dress,” Birzer says, but for an officer who has spent most of their career in a uniform, Birzer thinks that “they certainly may be less likely to engage. When you have a uniform, that’s the first [level] on the use-of-force continuum. But if you don’t have that, you certainly don’t have this show of force.” In other words: it’s theoretically easier to abuse your power when you’re wearing the state’s clothing.

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