Written By: Bob Weisskopf on behalf of Law Enforcement Today
For most police departments in the US, the last hundred years have been a time without beards. Mustaches were allowed if trimmed down to a uniform standard. Haircut standards have had more flexibility than facial hair. In many departments, the only people allowed to grow a beard was if the officer had a skin condition aggravated by shaving and requested by a doctor.
For a little history look at photos of police officers from the late 1800s. In the photo I have you see an assortment of clean-shaven officers as well as mustaches and a few beards. Since the early 1900’s, the number of police officers with beards has dropped. There are several reasons for this.
The last US president to have full facial hair was Benjamin Harrison who served from 1889 to 1893. The last president with a mustache was William Howard Taft who served from 1909 through 1913. The people of the country were growing away from facial hair as a popular grooming standard.
The US military had much to do with that. In the 20th Century, our military enforced a no beard standard in all but the Navy. The idea was a common facial grooming standard improved morale as well as helped maintain good hygiene. Today, you’ll see more military with beards but only when they are serving in an area where it would be uncommon for a man not to have a beard. Again, this is restricted to specific units and not the general cadre.
These servicemen returned to the US and joined their local police departments. They brought with them their grooming standards, priding themselves on being a part of a semi-military organization. Uniformity was the key once again.
My father served in the US Army during WWII. He lived the rest of his life following the grooming standards he learned in the service. He shaved once or twice a day, never trying to grow a mustache after he retired. It was the way he trained. He wasn’t the only one. If you look at any photos of police departments from the 40’s and 50’s most are clean shaven. It wasn’t until later that mustaches reemerged in popularity.
I had a beard in college. I had variations up until I started the police academy. The officer who performed my home interview told me I’d have to shave. I chuckled and said I would shave my entire body if the job required it. After all, it was only hair and would grow back. Since then I have maintained a mustache. My sons have never seen me without one. It’s part of me.
I retired over five years ago and grew in a goatee to match my mustache immediately. It seems mandatory for newly retired police officers to grow a goatee. This winter I’m trying a full beard once again. We’ll see. Right now, I look a bit like a bum, living on the street. It seems my beard is much lighter in color than the dark brown it once was.
The department I spent thirty years with is struggling to deal with facial hair. Mustaches have always been allowed, provided they were close-cropped and didn’t extend beyond the corners of your mouth. Beards were not approved unless you had a doctor’s note and the department issued beard card known as a “Bump Card.” This name came from a skin condition most often exhibited by African American males known as pseudofolliculitis barbae. This condition is commonly known as Bumps.
When I retired, beards were not allowed for religious reasons. The saying was, “You knew the situation when you took the job.” That may be changing now. It is across the country and a Muslim or Orthodox Jew can grow a beard in many departments now.
Despite these standards, I see many officers in Chicago and surrounding suburbs sporting more facial hair. At first, it was only officers in specialized units. Then Tact units began sporting goatees. Now I see more lumberjacks in uniform. I’m not sure this is due to relaxed standards or enforcement.
I’m sitting here, looking like a bum and I have mixed feelings about the trend towards beards on police officers. I’m not sure I like the look on officers in uniform. Mustaches are fine. I think they add to the image of the tough cop. But I’m not sure an officer in uniform should be wearing a beard. I have no problem with a civilian dressed officer wearing a neat beard or goatee. Moreover, I don’t think either should wear a beard that makes them look like they just wandered out of the mountains after a hundred-year nap or work part-time as a village elder.
I think there is a need for uniformity of facial grooming when in uniform. The old saying “Your uniform should command respect” does have some validity. Your facial hair is part of that uniform. Of course, Nigel Green’s muttonchop sideburns and handlebar mustache as he portrayed Sergeant Bourne in the movie Zulu did set the stereotype for what an English Sergeant Major should look like.
How is your department handling facial hair? Is it anything goes or clean shaven? Let us know. As always, we welcome and encourage your opinions and response.
Robert Weisskopf is a retired Chicago police lieutenant. In thirty years, he rose from police officer to sergeant, to lieutenant, serving every role in patrol with 18 months detailed to the Department of Housing and Urban Development leading a team for narcotics enforcement. He became a member of the Lieutenants Union and served as its’ president for six years negotiating two contracts. He also served as vice president of the Illinois Police Benevolent Protective Association. He’s a divorced father with three sons. You can view my website at BobWeisskopf.com.