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Dressing the Women in Blue

Policewomen’s uniforms still have a long way to go.

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On a Friday afternoon in a small suburb of western Cleveland, Sergeant Tanya Sirl was finishing her shift when she spotted a burglary suspect on the run. Wearing her standard police uniform, she pursued the suspect on foot, leaping over a chain link fence in the process. She succeeded in detaining him, but not before ripping open the seam of her pants. “My pants got caught on the fence because the crotch was so low,” said Sgt. Sirl. “It ripped them from appetite to asshole. Everyone got to see my hot pink thong.” She made her way back to the station holding her pants together with one hand and writing up her report with the other.

The year was 2007, but like many women in law enforcement, Sgt. Sirl was still wearing pants designed for men. With a seven inch-long zipper and a waistline patterned for a man’s shape, Sgt. Sirl had grown accustomed to shimmying her pants down from her ribs to make them fit. Each time a new uniform pant arrived at Sirl’s local retailer, she got an excited call from the well-meaning store manager to come in and try them on. They never fit. Sirl says that over the years brands have developed better women’s "tactical" pants, a style which women wear hunting or in military service, but standard police uniform pants still don’t make the grade.

Bulletproof vests present another challenge. The first time she was measured, the tailor had her seated, and started from the high waistband of her pants. She says the finished vest fit her like a “sports bra,” leaving her abdomen fully exposed to potential gunfire. “I called all the uniform companies and everybody told me that they didn’t put much effort into uniform pants for policewomen because we weren’t a big enough market,” said Sgt. Sirl.

Women today make up about 13 percent of law enforcement officers. According to nonprofit advocacy organization Women in Federal Law Enforcement (WIFLE), the underrepresentation of women in law enforcement is a result of inadequate recruitment and retention efforts. It wasn’t until 1972 that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act was expanded to prohibit police departments from discriminating against women in hiring, recruiting, and promoting, as well as in workplace conditions. Despite increased protection under the law, qualified women officers are still up against widespread discrimination.

DC police officers at a 1983 road accident.
Photo: Afro Newspaper/Gado

Catherine Sanz, president and executive director of WIFLE, began her law enforcement career in her early 20s as a police officer with the Federal Protective Service in Boston. At the tail end of the 1970s, Sanz worked as an officer on the front lines of the Boston busing desegregation protests, guarding the federal courthouse as masses of angry white protesters pelted school buses carrying black children with eggs, bricks, and bottles. “It was interesting in retrospect, when you think of the cases and people that were coming through that courthouse,” said Sanz. “You got to witness history taking place sometimes.”

Her first uniform was designed for women, but not for police work. Sanz wore polyester pants that zipped up the side with no pockets, a blouse, a little clip-on crisscross tie, a pillbox hat, and a man’s gun belt. “It was totally nonfunctional. It fit because it was women’s clothing, but you couldn’t do anything in it. Some women wore skirts with a gun belt, pumps, and pantyhose — they really couldn’t do anything.” At the time, comfortable women’s shoes were difficult to find, so Sanz would pick up a small pair of men’s shoes at the Army Navy store.

After sustained complaining to higher-ups, the women in Sanz’s department were allowed to upgrade to ill-fitting men’s shirts and pants. “It was still terrible, but at least now we had pockets to carry a couple dollars and a memo book,” said Sanz. “And of course, items for feminine needs [tampons] when you couldn’t get back to your locker during the day.”

Beyond shirts and pants, bulletproof vests that are not designed to accommodate breasts present a major safety issue. Sanz says her first vest was unacceptable and didn’t protect much of her body.

“The arm holes were too big, which made it more comfortable, but if you get shot in the side, there’s a very high mortality rate,” said Sanz. “Then you have to ask the question, why are you buying a safety product for an employee that does not protect that employee like anybody else?” said Sanz.

She wasn’t the only officer with a vest problem. When former Portland police chief Penny Harrington began her career as a patrol officer in the mid-1970s, the department received a federal grant to update the women’s bulletproof vests. Until then, she’d worn a vest made of a stiff material that felt like “a wooden board.” If a woman was well-endowed or recently had a baby, the vests were especially excruciating and many women gave up wearing them all together. Harrington complained to the chief, who called the manufacturer and demanded a safe, comfortable product.

Officer Pat Johnson with her child in Los Angeles, 1971.
Photo: Cal Montney/Getty Images

“I kid you not, the next vest they sent us had holes cut out for the breasts,” said Harrington. At that point, Harrington was still giving the designers the benefit of the doubt. This was uncharted territory. Perhaps they genuinely didn’t know how to design a vest for women? Harrington says the jig was up when the next vest came with two Madonna-like cones sewn onto the chest. “They just stuck straight out and they were pointed at the end,” said Harrington. “I was so angry when I got that one. I thought, this is so stupid, they had to know exactly what they were doing.”

Harrington went on to become the first female police chief in the United States. Over the years that she served, manufacturers developed new materials and the vests finally started to improve. She later founded the National Center for Women and Policing (NCWP), fighting against discriminatory hiring practices and conducting research on women officers’ professional strengths. Forty years of research demonstrates that women police officers rely less on physical force and more on communication skills that defuse potentially violent situations. Women police officers are therefore much less likely to be involved in occurrences of police brutality, and are also much more likely to effectively respond to police calls regarding violence against women, which today remain the single largest category of calls to police agencies nationwide. After decades of serving, organizing, and advocating, Harrington now lives a peaceful life running Ruby Dragon, her own crystal healing shop in Morro Bay, California.

The women’s police uniform has changed since the 1970s, but to what degree varies from department to department. Uniform policy and purchasing decisions are determined individually by the leadership of each of the 18,000 police departments in the United States. A large department with several female officers may make more informed buying decisions than a small department with only one woman on staff.

Tanya Sirl in Her Blue Wear.
Photo: Keith Berr Productions

Mary Jones (name changed for privacy), a police officer in Pittsburgh, is the only woman in the two departments she serves. The Pittsburgh Police Department was under a court order from 1975 to 1991 mandating that for every white male they hired they were to hire one white female, one African-American male, and one African-American female. At the time the court order was imposed, Pittsburgh had only 1 percent women at the rank of police officer. By 1990, the department had the highest representation of women police officers in a major US metropolitan city at 27.2 percent. Unfortunately, once the court order against Pittsburgh Police Department was lifted, the number of women hired dropped dramatically from the 50 percent ratio mandated under the court order to 8.5 percent. As of 2007, the percentage of women serving in the rank of police officer in Pittsburgh was down to 17 percent and is continuing to decline.

Jones has been on the job for six years and loves the work, but could do without the gender discrimination. In several job interviews, employers have asked if she was planning to “sleep around” once hired. Male officers occasionally inform her that their girlfriends find her threatening so they won’t be able to work directly with her, lest they succumb to temptation. She once responded to a call at the same time as a male officer and watched him turn around and drive away rather than get in trouble with his wife for working with her.

Despite the challenges, she knows the ropes. Jones pays out of pocket to have her uniform shirt tailored to fit her shape and favors black tennis shoes over heavy boots. She says that in an effort to foster a feeling of safety in the community, her department has tried to scale back on parts of the uniform that look too “tactical,” or evocative of military dress. Unfortunately, some of the tactical pieces are better designed for a woman’s body. “A lot of times, women are much smaller, and they can't fit as much around their waist,” said Jones. She doesn’t have enough room on her belt to wear a taser, so she carries it in a drop holster that wraps around her leg. “A lot of departments don't like that, because they think it looks too tactical. So sometimes, for smaller officers or women, you have to figure out what you can live without on your belt.”

A North Miami police officer, date unknown.
Photo: Jeff Greenberg/Getty Images

The safety, comfort, and convenience of the uniform a female officer wears is largely dependent on where she works. With 18,000 different police departments in the United States, there is a high degree of variability. The size, financial resources, and spirit of inclusion in each department determines what their women officers wear to work. Some departments bring in a skilled tailor to take measurements for the bulletproof vests. Others settle for a one-size-fits-all approach. Many departments require officers to purchase their own uniforms. Others cover the costs, but skimp on the quality.

Women in blue dedicate their lives to protecting the public. They efficiently de-escalate conflict, respond to domestic violence calls, and are the best advocates for victims of sexual assault. Shouldn’t the quality of their uniforms live up to the quality of their service?

Sgt. Sirl certainly thinks so. Fed up with the dysfunctional choices, she teamed up with her long-time close friend in sales, Denise Czack, and they started their own line of uniform apparel. They call it Her Blue Wear.

Czack consulted five different pattern makers in Cleveland before finding someone who could design an appropriate uniform for women. They developed three pant styles for different body types: The Streamlined (ruler), The Balanced (hourglass), and The Defined (pear). “All our fittings have always been on real police officers, never just an average model,” said Czack. “When we finally found the perfect fit, it was like goosebumps.”

The pants have six pockets for convenience, a shortened rise to eliminate sagging, and a more comfortable fit for the butt. “The first thing I heard when women put on our uniforms was, oh my gosh, these fit me in my crotch,” said Czack. “Because the old pants came up so high, they’d pull them down and have all this polyester fabric hanging between their legs, and in the heat, women would get yeast infections.” Czack says they have the pattern, the fabric, and a list of women officers who want to purchase the pants; now all they need is to raise enough capital.

Sgt. Sirl says that a good fit is important not only for functionality, but also for self-confidence. It’s easier to perform her duties and command respect when she’s not wearing clown pants. She wears makeup, styles her hair, and tends to her appearance in other ways that make her feel put together and professional.

“When a woman goes out to dinner with friends, she might try on five outfits before finding something that makes her feel right,” said Czack. “What could be better than having that good feeling and confidence while performing your job?”

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