The police forces of the world have, it sometimes seems, more than their share of traditions. Perhaps it’s the inherent danger of the job that drives this desire for ritual, and a similar drive can be seen in military forces, firefighters and other such professions. In America, these include the playing of bagpipes at an officer’s funeral, or the rule to never use the word “quiet” in a squad room. However no tradition of the US cop is more visible, or more often discussed, than the venerable Cop ‘Stache.
Now, moustaches, as a general form of facial hair, haven’t really been fashionable since the 1980s. (Outside of Movember, at least.) Yet in police forces across the US they’re not only popular, they’re practically mandatory. A running joke among officers is that a rookie is someone who hasn’t had time to grow a moustache yet. It’s not just an empty fad either – the right to grow a moustache is enshrined in most of their regulations, even when all other facial hair is banned. And officers take this right seriously – enough so that when several other police forces were merged into the Massachusetts State Police (which, unusually, forbids moustaches) then several members of those forces sued rather than shaved. Clearly, then, the Cop ‘Stache is serious business. But where does this tradition come from?
Some trace it back to the Old West, and the ornate moustaches which were common in the 19th century. Rural police forces especially trace much of their terminology and tradition back to the frontier sheriff, and claim to wear the facial hair to honour those predecessors. Yet the ‘stache is equally common in the cities, which have no such tradition. Others claim that the police wear them because firefighters do, and it’s true that firefighters in the US do also tend to wear moustaches. Why they do is just as much a matter for debate, though. Some people say they started as a makeshift filter for air breathed through the nose, before breathing gear was available. Others point to that same breathing gear as the reason, since a full beard would interfere with the seal of a mask.
Perhaps a third option is that they both inherited the tradition from the US military, which does have historical and traditional ties to them both. In the military, the moustache often serves as a distinction between a trainee and a full officer – echoes of the comment about “rookies” not having grown their moustache out yet. In fact, one legendary requirement for West Point Military Academy was that cadets could have “no horse, no wife, no moustache”, at least until they graduated. As with the other forces, the military also bans beards but considers moustaches perfectly respectable.
In fact, that could be the real reason for the moustaches – respectability. A moustache is, after all, old-fashioned, and so to many embodies old respectable values – exactly what people are looking for in the police. One police force in India definitely thought so. There, for a long time, the moustache was reserved as a marker of high caste (and so extreme respectability). One police chief in Jhabua district offered a bonus in pay to officers who grew moustaches, after he noticed that officers with moustaches received more respect from the public.
Of course there’s a flipside to this moustache mania – namely that it excludes women from the club. If you need a moustache to be a proper cop, then that clearly means that women are not “proper cops”. For a long time, this was a pretty accurate representation of most police officers’ attitudes to women in the force – an expectation that women would fail to measure up to the standards of the force, and a deliberate attempt to undercut any who looked like upsetting that worldview. Fortunately (due to improved opportunities and an enforced quota of female recruits in some cities) this has improved greatly over the last twenty years, though it’s still an opinion that is held by some.
The real reason why cops wear moustaches though, is a simple one. Cops wear moustaches because cops wear moustaches. Policemen in movies perpetuate this when they wear a moustache, and then policemen in real life emulate the movies. A police officer is just a person, but when they put on the badge they have to become something more – and anything that helps them to both feel and be perceived as a “real” police officer is to be embraced. Ask most Americans to think of a police officer, and they’ll think of “a guy with a moustache”. Regardless of how it started, then, this potent symbol of group identity is, almost certainly, here to stay.