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Shades of Macho

With fireplug build, five o'clock shadow, and a green dragon tattoo across his forearm, Margate police officer Al Simon will never be mistaken for a fashion model on patrol.

Still, standing in front of police headquarters on a bright, hot afternoon, Simon sports one striking fashion accessory: $90 black wraparound sunglasses, Italian-made "Killer Loops."

Simon's penchant for trendy shades has him and other fashion-conscious Margate cops grumbling about the department's strict eyewear regulations, which they consider schoolmarmish and unduly image-conscious. The regulations cover everything from approved lens colors ("brown, gray, green, blue, or photo-gray" -- but not black) to approved frame designs ("conventional") to just where on their uniforms officers can stash their shades (practically nowhere).

Although the regulations date to 1992, officers say they weren't heavily enforced until two years later, after the city lost several highly publicized police brutality lawsuits and embarked on an image-polishing campaign to win accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation of Law Enforcement Agencies.

The sunglass crackdown was part of that effort. "It's an image thing," says Capt. John Curtis. "When you see an officer in mirrored sunglasses, it calls up that old stereotype about a Southern trooper with a shaved head -- 'Come here boy!' -- that we're trying to get away from."

To macho-leaning Margate cops, the sunglass regulations are an overreaction to past problems. Complains motorcycle officer James Baldwin, "We're trying to rethink everything," including the image cops project on the street. "There's an old military term they use -- clean. They don't want anything on the uniform that doesn't look 'clean.'"

According to Baldwin the Margate brass has always been uptight about uniforms. When the city created a motorcycle police unit, "at first they tried to tell us we couldn't wear boots. People were commenting about 'jackboots.' We had to explain how polyester and skin tend to melt when they touch a hot exhaust pipe."

The department also refused to allow patrol officers to wear skintight black neoprene gloves, he says, because of the gloves' "testosterone-heavy, macho image." Only after deciding that officers need protection from blood-transmitted diseases did the brass relent.

The latest Margate fashion flare-up involves regulations on where officers can place their shades when not wearing them. There are only two authorized locations: in their pockets or hanging from lanyards around their necks, neither of which is a realistic option, officers argue.

"You can't put a good pair of sunglasses in your shirt pocket and not expect them to get trashed," insists Baldwin, whose $140 shades are fitted with prescription Zeiss lenses. "I've scratched lenses, I've had lenses pop out. I just don't do it anymore."

As for the lanyard option, officers say they are reluctant to hang any cord around their necks for fear a suspect could grab it and choke them.

To Al Simon that leaves only one alternative for his Killer Loops: When he's in a situation where he must remove his shades -- for instance, when walking into a darkened building -- he says he ends up holding them in his hand, "and that's not good; you need your hands free."

For this law enforcement problem, Simon proposes a stylish solution: hanging shades from the small flaps, called epaulets, that button on the shoulders of Margate uniforms. Modeling this nonapproved position, Simon enthused, "Check this out, this looks professional!" -- a fashion statement unfortunately not shared by Captain Curtis. "We don't like how it looks to hang sunglasses from epaulets," he ruled.

Still, Curtis is not blind to his officers' complaints. He says he will reconvene the department's long-defunct uniform committee to review the glaring issue of sunglass restrictions, adding, "It's kind of silly we have to even think about these things.

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Paul Belden

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