Baltimore County police officers working night shifts will be trading in their shirts today -- switching from bright whites to subdued blues that they say will make them a less conspicuous target for a criminal aiming a gun.
Although no studies or documented incidents suggest that officers wearing white shirts are shot more often, department officials say that perception has led to the change.
"The officers feel safer with the dark shirts on at night," said Sgt. Joseph E. Burris of the Technical Support Services Division. "They have been asking for this for years. It's the perception, and the perception is as important as reality."
Officer Eric Libby, who patrols Essex Precinct, agreed, saying a dark uniform gives him a "tactical advantage."
"In a barricade situation, when I am setting up a perimeter and the suspect is inside a house possibly with a gun and watching me, I am easy to spot in a white shirt," he said. "Also, a dark shirt wears better. The white shirt shows just about everything and, down here, where we do a lot of running on calls, we need a uniform that will hold up."
Police Chief Michael D. Gambrill said that although he prefers the white shirts, he understands officers' concerns and thinks dark shirts will work well on night shifts.
"I didn't think the dark shirts would work well during the day with the heat in Baltimore during the summer," he said. "We want them to wear their [bulletproof] vests, and that makes it hot enough even with the white shirts that reflect the heat."
County officers will begin wearing the shirts today. Sergeant Burris said the change will cost the department about $153,000, as about 1,000 officers are issued the new garb -- five long-sleeve and five short-sleeve shirts.
While uniforms vary from department to department, agencies across the country that once wore white shirts are changing to a darker color for the same reasons.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier approved the change about a year ago after officers complained that they felt unsafe at night. He formerly was with the Police Department in San Jose, Calif., where officers wear dark shirts.
"The white shirts reflect in the dark at night," said Agent Ragina L. Cooper, a city police spokeswoman. "And it makes you a walking target."
While a darker shirt makes it more difficult for a gunman to target a police officer, it also makes it more difficult for the public to identify an officer, county and city officials acknowledge. Sometimes an officer wants it clearly known that he or she is the police, but other times the officer does not.
"If you are walking down a dark alley at 2 a.m., the officer feels like a target," said Sam Ringgold, a city police spokesman. "There are other things, such as the badge that is worn outside the shirt, that identify them as officers."