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Police fear their image is being ripped off by cowboy outfits, says Jason Bennetto. But bona fide security firms, below, find the proper dress code counts if they want to inspire public confidence

The police are under attack. Not from gun-wielding gangsters or crazed drug dealers, but from respectable-looking men dressed in navy blue uniforms, peaked caps and shiny black boots. The threat has become so severe that chief constables are taking action to defend themselves. And the subject of their wrath? Private security guards.

As the security sector booms - the industry's 160,000 employees now outnumber police officers - so do the number of cowboy outfits. Chief constables believe that while bona fide firms legitimately use smart uniforms, some unscrupulous private guards are copying the police's uniform and vehicles in order to fool the public and seize undeserved respectability.

"We feel we should be more robust in defending the image and trademarks of the police," explains Keith Povey, Chief Constable of Leicestershire. "We have a very good reputation among the public and we do not want private security firms - many of whom are cowboys - damaging it."

Among ideas being considered by a special police working group is the possibility of copyrighting emblems, including the names "police" and "constabulary" when used on force badges. The group is also considering taking legal action to protect the design of police helmets, hat bands, and the livery on patrol cars.

Part of the problem is that security firms are unregulated. As Inspector Phil Nicholls, from Somerset and Avon Police, points out: "Anyone can go out and buy themselves a white van and a peaked cap and call themselves a security patrol. No one knows their background and they may have all sorts of convictions. There are also cases of con men taking money then disappearing."

The police's worst fears were confirmed in a survey that found some security companies employ men convicted of crimes, such as assault and burglary; and a few have rapists and murderers protecting the public. Even the industry's trade body admits certain security outfits are trying to hijack the police's good name. Andrew Mackay, spokesman of the British Security Industry Association, recalls seeing a private security vehicle in Cambridge recently which "had identical markings to those of a police car. There's no question that some people are trying to cash in on the police look."

Uniform suppliers confirm the trend. John Oates, group sales marketing director of the Birmingham-based company PUC, whose clothes catalogue boasts a selection of polyester and nylon outfits for the discerning security guard, says: "The smaller companies tend to go for the classic police look. When you see some of these little bands trundling around, you have to look twice before you realise they are not policemen."

The Association of Chief Police Officers' Patrol working group is currently examining the issue and drawing up proposals. The Commons Home Affairs select committee has recently completed an investigation into the private security industry and is expected to issue a report in a few months - this mayinclude restrictions on dress.

This will theoretically stop those private security companies currently going unchecked, but may hamper other, respectable security firms who have concrete reasons for their choice of uniform. Below, those companies explain why they opt to look the way they do.

A Corporate Total Service (ACTS)

Uniform from Uniform Express, supplier of uniforms

Someone intent on mischief might actually stop in their tracks. From a distance, the navy blue ribbed jumper, dark trousers and blue cap look remarkably like police attire. Only on closer inspection you do notice that the cap lacks the black and white checked band of the police, and that the silver letters on the epaulettes spell "security".

Ron Painter, chairman of the London-based A Corporate Total Service, admits: "A quick glance at the uniform and perhaps you could think it is the police. There is also word association: people mentally link security and police.

"But it doesn't take long to realise that we are not the police. And we are certainly not setting out to deceive the public by imitating them. It is very important that security companies do not look like the police.

"But blue is serviceable and looks authorative. It is the style that our customers want. You can't kit out the guards in suits or they wouldn't stand out.

"About 90 per cent of all crime is random and, if a criminal sees someone who looks official, it's likely that he will walk away."

The uniform, Mr Painter says, is to be replaced in the next six months. The new look, with its eight-sided navy blue hat, large brass badges, and its blue shirt and matching trousers, is based on the American style of security uniforms. "With the new uniform," he says, "there is no chance of mistaking a security company for the police."

Birmingham NCP car park patrol Uniform from an unnamed supplier of work wear

With the yellow and black checked band around their caps, high visibility jackets and torch and notebook in hand, you could be forgiven for thinking that the man approaching your car is a motorway patrol policeman. He is, in fact, one of National Car Park's own patrol staff.

According to William McLean, regional operations manager for Wales, Midlands and East Anglia, the uniforms were introduced a year ago "to introduce an image easily recognisable by the public and to act as a deterrent to criminals." He does admit that in the dark or from a distance, the uniform could be mistaken for that of a patrol policeman.

"At a glance, people think authority. The first person you think of is a policeman. But most people associate this uniform with moving cars, which they don't expect to see in a car park.

"The police have black and white checked bands on their caps and we have our corporate colour yellow. Our NCP logo is clearly recognisable on the left breast pocket of the white shirt and on the jacket and cap.

"Before, when our staff dressed in blue overalls, people didn't know who they were. There were occasions when women would report seeing a suspicious-looking man around. It turned out to be one of our own staff. Now at least everyone knows where they stand.

"We do not have any intention of changing our uniform. I think the police are being a little naive in thinking they can introduce a copyright on their uniform."

Group Four

Uniform supplied by the Practical Uniform Company

Group Four's uniform resembles that of an airline pilot: mid grey jacket and trousers, white shirt and tie. Only the company logo gives the game away. Group 4 deliberately chose grey to ensure that staff would not be confused with the police or military.

"Security staff should be instantly recognisable and should look clearly different from a police officer," says the marketing director David Dickinson. "The public has a right to know who they are dealing with. "Our style is softer and sufficiently distinctive - not to be confused with a suit. It is easily recognised as belonging to a security officer.

"There are great many firms which undoubtedly see the advantage of being mistaken for a police officer at first glance. But if staff need that kind of protection they are not being properly trained.

"The biggest problem is the burgeoning numbers of private street patrols, which seem to adopt a quasi police role. These can give a false sense of security. Currently, the industry is not regulated and anyone can come out of prison and set up a security company.

"As a company, Group Four has a policy that it will not get involved in patrolling communities. We believe that community policing should be left to the police, who have built up a special relationship with the public over the years.

"The role of the security, whatever the uniform, should be prevention, not enforcement. In the end, they must stand on their own."

Associated and Emergency Services

Uniform from the United States

Here is the image designed to take security into the year 2000. The mounted guards' helmets are reminiscent of those worn by the American motorcycle cops in the television show Chips. Three-inch high chrome badges with the company logo are worn on their helmets, breast pocket and shoulders. The grey blouson shirts, jodhpurs and black boots all say American cop rather than British police.

According to Rikki Browne, manager of AES's guarding division, this is one of the reasons why the company swapped its old black tunics for the new uniform: "It is an offence to look like the police so we have made a deliberate effort not to do so."

Browne adds that wearing black or blue does have the benefit of affording a security guard some protection. "I believe that a police-style navy blue or black uniform is more of a deterrent to someone looking to break into a premises. And a policeman is less likely to be attacked than a security guard.

"Unscrupulous security guards take advantage of this. They carry themselves like the police, standing with their feet slightly apart and their hands behind their back. It is terribly easy to get hold of police attire. I know of a dozen shops within the M25 selling surplus police tunics, and they are very cheap."

Jo Kearney