D.C.’s new chief of police, Charles Ramsey, sat at a Council of Government awards ceremony recently when he looked up and noticed some nice-looking cops in Class-A uniforms. He turned to his public affairs officer, Sgt. Joe Gentile.

“Those officers really look sharp,” he said.

Gentile told his boss that the uniformed sharpies belonged to a jurisdiction just across the District line, Prince George’s County. That the dapper cops weren’t from D.C. should have come as no surprise: Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) officers have been complaining for years that their uniforms are shabby, ugly, cheap, and unprofessional. “The shirts are about 25 or 26 years old,” says Gentile. “And the pants, even I don’t know. They’ve been here even before I’ve been here,” says the 30-year veteran. “The officers would like to see different uniforms…and Chief Ramsey’s going to look at that down the road. It’s not a major priority compared with some major issues he has to deal with immediately. But it is a matter he will be reviewing.”

If he ends up ordering new uniforms, Chief Ramsey will no doubt please his department’s rank and file. Says an MPD officer who used to work on the P.G. County police force: “We need new uniforms. The material is very cheap, they rip very easily, and it’s not real easy to get a new pair [of pants] when they do rip. They never have your size. I got a lot of friends on the P.G. County police department, and they say we look like bus drivers.”

P.G. County police Cpl. Tim Neel agrees: “Years ago, back when my father was an officer on this force, they had to wear the eight-point hat, like MPD officers have to wear. It does look like a bus driver’s hat. Though I’d never say this to a D.C. officer, if you look at a Metro Transit uniform, it does look [like] their uniform.” Says Neel of his duds: “The uniforms that we have, they definitely look good….It gives you a sense of pride.”

P.G. County’s pride in its sartorial superiority is on display in the lobby of the P.G. County Police Services Station, in Landover, Md. Alongside a 1931 Model A Ford police car and a wall of framed photographs stands a case containing two mannequins, one wearing the department’s pre-1946 green khaki uniforms, the second in its current trademark gray shirt and blue pants. It’s hard to imagine MPD hanging its shabby look for all to see.

Before each new P.G. County officer hits the streets, he or she receives a uniform that is custom-fit and brand new. This is an important part of the emotional, as well as financial, investment that the force makes in each new recruit, says Cpl. Barry Beam, special assistant to the P.G. County police chief. “It’s like a big Christmas gift for the officer. It gives him a great feeling.” MPD officers, on the other hand, are often given second-hand clothes. “If we got ’em, we’ll reissue them to save some money,” says Gentile. “I’ve got a second-hand blouse I think looks fine. It doesn’t bother me.”

P.G. County doesn’t go for any old off-the-rack rag. In fact, according to Beam, even his police force’s colors are specifically manufactured for the department. “We have our own dye lot for our own shade of ‘French blue’ pants…and [the company] that makes our shirts gives us our own special gray, too.”

But creating an Officer Beau Brummel doesn’t come cheap: one single P.G. County police uniform—consisting of gray shirt, French blue pants, jacket, hat, handcuff case, holster, cross strap, Sam Brown belt, garrison belt, and tie—costs $429.09, gun not included. Then you gotta throw in rain gear ($69.70) and a winter coat ($169.25). Plus, each officer receives two more pairs of pants ($58.50 apiece), four more long-sleeved shirts ($20.20 apiece), and five short-sleeved shirts ($18.40 apiece). All told, it comes to $957.84 per officer. (Officers are expected to provide socks, shoes, and undies for themselves.) Were Chief Ramsey to outfit each of the 3,597 sworn MPD officers with such wares, the total cost to the city would be $3,445,350.40. That’s a number that wouldn’t fit too nicely on anybody’s Hecht’s card.

Fashion is overrated, if you ask P.G. County Cpl. Tim Estes. “I think it’s the person who wears the uniform,” he comments.

But Bernard Lepper, executive director of the New York City-based National Association of Uniform Manufacturers and Distributors (NAUMD), attributes almost magical properties to the choice and cut of a uniform. “Professional-appearing uniforms” not only “instill pride in the officer…[but] in the community….The sight of a police uniform is a calming factor.” And the better the quality, the more respect. Lepper cites as an example the televised congressional testimony of Lt. Col. Oliver North. “Do you remember what he was wearing? Most people do. Whatever your politics are, his uniform made a positive impression.”

“Appearance has a lot to do with law enforcement,” P.G. County’s Beam agrees. “If I, as an officer on the street, come and my appearance is impeccable, the image I portray is serious, professional….If I come and I have an unkempt appearance…if I don’t look sharp and disciplined, you’re going to think, ‘If this guy can’t handle himself, how’s he going to handle me?’”

D.C. cops’ reputation for uniform dowdiness is heightened by their contrast with the numerous sharp-dressed cops in neighboring jurisdictions. Just last August, NAUMD presented the Alexandria Police Department with the award for Best Dressed Police Department (for a city with more than 200 officers); the Fort Myer Military Police Department, which serves in D.C. ceremonies as well as guarding President Clinton on his jogs, won Best Dressed for a specialized agency; even Rockville City Police Department and D.C.’s Metro Transit Police were given special recognition for Outstanding Achievement.

And police forces from both Anne Arundel County and Baltimore City are wearing new blue shirts. (Their previous blouses were white, a color that can make it easier for perps to take aim on cops at night.) And as long as they were revamping, both departments opted for higher-quality pants as well. Everybody’s lookin’ tight except for our cops.

And clothes indubitably affect self-esteem and attitude. A 1988 study of pro hockey and football players indicated that those wearing black uniforms were among the most aggressive—and consequently among the most penalized. Conversely, a few years ago, U.S. Naval Academy midshipwomen protested uniforms that Sen. Barbara Mikulski complained looked like “1940s airline stewardess uniforms.” “It has a negative, disempowering effect on women when they feel they don’t look their best,” one female former police officer told the Washington Post.

Maybe Robin Givhan of the Post could be prevailed upon to serve as a consultant on fashion issues. With the right help, and a whole lot of money, MPD might be able to come up with that elusive all-season number that conveys both approachability and authority in a one-size-fits-all package. Then again, given some of the pizza-stuffed frames that the uniforms will be clinging to, the possibility of an expensive fashion faux pas certainly looms as well.CP