Air Marshals: Let Us Be Less Joe Friday and More Frank Serpico
My friend Oscar Merida sent me this story this morning, and it’s the sort of thing that you can’t help but shake your head while you read, it’s so dispiriting…
From the New York Times — Dress Code May Hinder Their Work, Air Marshals Say:
Documents and memorandums issued by the Department of Homeland Security and field offices of the Federal Air Marshal Service say air marshals must “present a professional image” and “blend unnoticed into their environment.” Some air marshals have argued that the two requirements are contradictory.
Federal air marshals must have neatly trimmed hair and men must be clean-shaven, the documents say. Some of the service’s 21 field offices have mandated that male officers wear suits, ties and dress shoes while on duty, even in summer heat. Women are required to wear blouses and skirts or dress slacks. Jeans, athletic shoes and noncollared shirts are prohibited.
In April, the officers’ group sent a letter to members of Congress saying that the “military-style grooming standards and a blanket ‘sports coat’ dress policy,” along with conspicuous boarding procedures, jeopardize the safety of air marshals.
In other words, the Air Marshal Service has decided that, when their dress code comes into conflict with their requirement to blend in with the other passengers, the dress code comes first. Never mind that this could result in Marshals sticking out like a sore thumb — which would make them pretty easy to identify and eliminate in the opening stage of any halfway-competent hijacking operation. That’s not important. What’s important, apparently, is that the dress code be preserved.
The Times quotes Air Marshal Service spokesman Dave Adams giving this justification for this bass-ackward policy:
Mr. Adams said a dress code was put in place in April 2002 after the airline industry complained that air marshals’ attire was too casual. He said some marshals had worn shorts, blue jeans, sandals and T-shirts while on duty.
“In order to gain respect in a situation, you must be attired to gain respect,” Mr. Adams said in an interview. He said if air marshals were allowed to be too casual in their dress, “they probably would not gain the respect of passengers if a situation were to occur.”
Say what? They wouldn’t be able to gain the respect of passengers?
I have a news flash for Mr. Adams — you don’t have to dress like Sergeant Joe Friday to “gain the respect of passengers” in a hijack situation. I’m pretty sure that carrying a gun, a badge, and shouting “FEDERAL AIR MARSHAL!” would do the trick, even if you’re wearing shorts. And if those shorts keep you from getting popped before you even know something’s going down, they’ve done their job better than a sport jacket ever could.
Air Marshals are undercover cops. Their first priority should be to blend in!
The whole situation makes me wonder if anyone at DHS ever saw the classic movie Serpico. Remember all those scenes where Serpico watched in amazement as his fellow “undercover” narcotics cops went out onto the street in painfully square clothes and hairstyles that told anyone who looked at them that they were a narc? I’d feel a lot safer in the air if I knew that DHS was telling its Air Marshals to model themselves on Frank Serpico instead of Joe Friday.
UPDATE (Aug. 28, 2006): Two years after I posted this, the Air Marshals Service has finally relaxed its ridiculous dress code.