Uniform series: Toronto Police Services

9 Aug

Toronto Police uniform, 1900.

Part of my training as a costume designer was studying costume history, including some military history. I found uniforms particularly fascinating because of the beautiful lines and cuts, and the brilliant and logical practicality of military gear.

I was privileged to inspect the military-like uniforms of the Toronto  Police Services (TPS) for this series and was first shown the historical police uniform displays set up on the main floor of 51 Division by Community Relations Officer, Constable Peter Cullingford.

The typical police uniform from the early 20th century consisted of a navy wool tunic with a mandarin collar and metal buttons, navy trousers, and a thick leather belt that housed a baton, offering little protection. Luckily for today’s officers, uniforms are designed with safety and ergonomics in mind. I was delighted hear about health and safety committees and a clothing committee for officers, to keep them protected and in good health.

The modern uniform

The military is about order and precision, with neat identical uniforms. TPS shares the military order and police constables receive cleaning vouchers to keep their uniforms clean. Senior officers however, must  handle the cleanings on their own. 51 Division Supervisor, John  Tanouye, impressed me because he cleans and presses his own shirts, and I must say, he does an impeccable job.

Police cadets, constables, sergeants, and staff sergeants wear stiff, twill, navy  polyester/cotton blend shirts, and senior officers wear thinner white shirts. However, during large police operations, senior officers wear  navy shirts so they blend in and don’t stand out.

Police shirts have epaulets, shoulder pieces used for insignia of rank by armed forces and other organizations. On the shirts themselves, the epaulet is made of “self” fabric (shirt fabric), but when worn on a dress uniform, the shoulder insignia – a.k.a “shoulder flashes” attaches to the jacket shoulder, displaying colour-coded symbols of their rank – silver for staff sergeants and below, gold for inspectors or above.

Navy trousers are a soft, poly-cotton fabric blend that wash-and-wear well. The red stripe down the trouser leg signifies an armed, municipal, sworn constable. Under the dark trousers are dark socks for reasons outside of proper gentleman’s dressing, as PC Cullingford explains. “White socks would look silly and at night, they would stick out like a sore thumb reducing a stealthy approach, if seen,” he says, “Dark socks have been in our rules and regulations for decades.”

Forge hat

The forge hat, worn throughout the year, has a mesh band around the crown, allowing breathability during hot weather. In cooler weather, a band of red poly-cotton braid is worn over the mesh to keep the heat in. Of course on really cold days, officers wear the heavy ear-flapped ushanka hat.

Senior officers work in offices and wear clean black lace-up shoes that they polish themselves, but constables in the community wear Canadian-made, waterproof, black ankle boots with thick soles, lined with Thinsulate and Goretex. As PC Cullingford, formerly of the mounted unit, can tell you, waterproof everything is essential when working outdoors – he explained how awful it is to sit on a horse for hours in the pouring rain during parades and protests.

Side opening reveals the zip-out lining.

The three-season, machine-washable police jacket is a short, bomber style made locally at Outdoor Outfitters in Toronto.  The jacket is lined with warm, waterproof thermoplastic polymer textiles, and the tightly-woven nylon shell keeps moisture out.

This jacket is logical, practical, and well-designed – everything about it has been meticulously planned. To stretch its use throughout the year, the lining zips out and storm cuffs at the end of the sleeve snap out. With safety in mind, reflective tape tabs can be pulled from the outside pockets, side zippers allow easy access to the belt, and expandable pleated armholes offer more movement.

This “action back” style  is reminiscent of early 20th century shooting jackets that allowed free upper body movement.  This bi-swing jacket style became popular during the 1930s, even with Hollywood actors including Clark Gable. See bi-swing jacket photos here.

Uniform safety and ergonomic updates

Police officers wear hatch gloves made of Kevlar, an extremely cut-resistant material also used to stop bullets in their bulletproof vests. The material “catches” bullets in its multilayer web of woven stronger-than-steel fibers. (The next post is dedicated to Kevlar, as it is a life-saving component of emergency uniforms.)

Because some uniform accessories “can be grabbed and yanked,” Supt. Tanouye explained, traditional pieces have been abandoned for safety’s sake. Proper long, knotted ties have been replaced with admittedly unstylish polyester clip-on ties, and the cross strap of the Sam Browne belt, worn to better balance the heavy police belt, was removed altogether.

TPS belts are  made from 3/8″ thick vinyl and carry a 4 lb gun, two magazines, first aid gear including a CPR mask and latex gloves, handcuffs, pepper spray, flashlight, and the very intimidating asp, an expanding baton made of extremely hard carbon steel that PC Cullingford shot out like a fishing rod. To collapse the thing, he had to push it into the floor by leaning his weight into it!

Without the Sam Browne cross strap however, the weight of the 14 lb belt must be taken on entirely by the pelvis and lower spine, leaving officers with sore hips, sore joints, and sometimes painful sciatica. Officers are switching to the two-belt system to balance weight via Velcro strips inside the belt and on the trouser waistband, and some  wear suspenders on their trousers for better weight distribution. Another option is to store smaller bits of belt gear in vest pockets.

Ira Janowitz, PT, CPE, an ergonomics consultant at U.C. San Francisco/Berkeley Ergonomics Program, conducted a study that explained police belt discomfort being due to the belt’s pressure and weight on the hip, pelvis, and lower back, exacerbated by the pressure of the belt’s edges and the grip of their weapon, belt stiffness, and “vertical location of the holster in relation to hip and pelvis and cant of the weapon.” (Read this excellent article about police belt ergonomics.)

Police services are attempting to combat the problems of the belt’s weight with ergonomically designed car seats for officers on the road. Flat car seats are currently used in Toronto squad cars, but Chrysler, GM, and Ford are designing cut-away seats to house the belts and take the weight off of officer’s lower body.

Clothing originally came from the need to protect against the elements and from predators, and the complex police uniform was created for the same reasons. Uniforms must be comfortable, well-designed, and made of cutting-edge textiles to protect officers from weather and from harm. Because the job can be literally life or death, the police uniform holds an enormous responsibility within its threads, but the TPS seem to be well-covered.

Thanks to Toronto Police Services 51 Division, and Constable Peter Cullingford and Superintendent John Tanouye for their help and assistance.

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