Being able to stick around long enough on the job to be considered a veteran law enforcement officer is not always the result of positive experiences. If you ask me, it's more about how much you have survived: how many bad leaders, bad calls, and life mistakes you have made but somehow muddled through. These experiences often mold you into the gnarly old veteran officer that you've become. They are the reason younger officers may seek you out or supervisors may tell the younger ones to avoid you. Being that old guy, I know it often comes down to police fashion.


Veteran LEOs tend to wear Hawaiian shirts or sometimes bowling shirts. (Photo: Getty Images)

Veteran LEOs tend to wear Hawaiian shirts or sometimes bowling shirts. (Photo: Getty Images)

Cheap Hawaiian Shirts

Years ago, when working in Georgia it was often an undertaking to carry off duty and concealed. In the early years, pretty much the only option was wearing jackets or leaving your shirttails pulled out for easy access. Then enter the tactical off-duty photographer-type vests, the ones with lots of pockets. Vests were all the rage but soon became identifiable as apparel for off-duty police officers trying to look cool. And please do not remind me of "fanny packs." Later the tactical equipment manufacturers came out with their concealed carry tactical shirts. These are great and I even have a few. But still there is a void; attire and attitudes need to match.

For veteran officers, there are a few of us who don't care or don't possess any fashion sense whatsoever. You know the old guys that when they walk across the room they make creaking sounds? They tend to wear Hawaiian shirts or sometimes bowling shirts. A few even spring for the Guayabera shirts, which are generally the same style but make far more fashion sense. All of these bigger, looser fitting shirts are comfortable and easily conceal your weapon. But they also speak volumes about the wearer, other than no fashion sense.

Dress Codes

When you attend training, especially training conferences, there are some rules. There are some departments that still require officers to wear duty uniforms or logo-bearing shirts to training classes, even those out of state. They believe in showing the flag whenever possible. Most request business casual for meetings. Kind of stiff regulation, I would say.

At most police conferences where officers are free to wear what they want, you'll still find the younger ones in tactical shirts and tac pants or jeans. There will be plenty of T-shirts that reek of personal vocational statements or product recognition. The baseball hats with "the crush" effect and sunglasses are still in vogue. The one major point to be made here is that most of us have worn uniforms all our professional lives, to include military service. So even when "off duty," we tend to still conform by wearing identifiable tactical wear. What I find important is that sometimes we just want to be ourselves and relax.

For a few of the crusty, old curmudgeons, our way of doing this is wearing "the shirts." Earlier, I mentioned either we were the ones to be avoided or the ones needed to guide the younger officers beyond the "101 Stuff of Life" and learn from our life experiences. A few years ago, I transitioned to the league, so to speak. We all should still wear uniforms or suits when we need to due to regulations and stations of life. But I realized that when you attend an event or training conference where you can be yourself, you should try to loosen up when it comes to your attire to enjoy the moment. May I suggest a Hawaiian shirt?

I know most of the younger officers will reject this idea because it's not their style. For those of you who are in the gray hair or no hair era, get a shirt and try it. There is a maxim in general usage that goes something like "Beware of an old man in a profession where men usually die young." Most of us have the code names already. Monikers like "Joe P" or "Wild Bill." In the grand scheme of things, they are great persons and you need to know them. We are willing to share life experiences and don't want the younger generation to relive our mistakes. You just might be able to find us based on our nifty shirts.

Learning from the League

Remember, we have already experienced our career's challenges, so learn from us. Some of us are the reasons for lessons learned. Not every one of us is the officer for which certain regulations were written because of past sins, but I will admit there is a "Harvey Rule" at my old department. The old guys knew the "state of the art" from years ago and it gives a foundation to compare to today's "state of the art." We must know where we came from if we want to go into the future.

This old guy league is a collection of distinguished and often colorful characters; take time to get to know a few. The warning here is that if you join, you will be approached by the younger officers. If you are bold enough to wear the telltale shirt, you've got to have stories to tell along with worldly advice. All of us had that old officer who sat down with a coffee and told us "how it is to survive here" and "what you need to do." Thanks goodness for that.

We operate in a world of black-and-white rules but work in a world of grays. It is very important for the older generations to pass on the institutional knowledge and share the hard lessons learned for this profession to progress. We are operating in litigious and perilous times; for an officer to truly survive, the older and wiser group can help.

If you're an oldtimer, get a cheap Hawaiian shirt, brighten up the conversation and relax, and be the old guy who gives back and shares. It is our way of helping carry on the profession. And for the younger officers, take a look around you. We are easy to spot, easy to talk to, and we want to make you successful.

William L. "Bill" Harvey is the chief of the Ephrata (PA) Police Department. He retired from the Savannah (GA) Police Department where he worked assignments in training, patrol, and CID. Harvey has more than 25 years of experience working with recruits, rookies, and FTOs.