Dressed for a Meeting, Ready for Mayhem         

By CHRISTINE HAUSER – Sunday, May 4th, 2008 ‘The New York Times’

From his precinct on the fringes of Hell’s Kitchen, Detective Kevin P. Schroeder has cracked the case of a corpse in a Dumpster, wrestled a man into handcuffs on the sidewalk, and chased suspects across rooftops and down fire escapes.

When he prepares for a day at work, he puts his handgun in a holster, clips his cellphone and radio on his belt, and tucks handcuffs into his waistband, letting one of the cuffs dangle outside where he can easily grab it.

And then, in a well-worn tradition that has endured for more than a century, Detective Schroeder adds one more crucial piece of gear. He puts on a tailored suit jacket that has been cut with extra material around the waist.  That way, there are no unsightly bulges from gun and gear.

 “I like room in it because of my pistol, my handcuffs, my radio,” Detective Schroeder said. “You want it a little bigger than you normally would get.”

 “I try to wear my less expensive suits if I am going out to track a bad guy,” he added.

From streets to stairwells, garbage bins to muddy riverbanks, the tradition of the dapper detective runs through years of law enforcement, surviving the rough-and-tumble of gritty streets and a trend in recent years toward dress-down Fridays and casual attire.

Never mind that it can seem incongruous to wear business attire to make arrests, scrutinize the blood and debris of a murder scene, and confront killers and thieves.

“A suit and tie is our uniform,” said Joel E. Potter, 64, a veteran homicide detective who retired in 2000. “A lot of times you’re set up in a car at 3 in the morning, or there are two dead bodies on the sidewalk. And when you step out of the car, you look like a professional. They know the man is there. They know the suits mean business.”

There are about 5,400 detectives in New York City, many of them involved in dangerous undercover work, dressing in jeans for drug busts or posing as mechanics in greasy work pants.

Then there are thousands like Detective Schroeder, in homicide and precinct units, who not only work at crime scenes but also operate on the public front lines, notifying families of the death of a loved one, interviewing victims and witnesses or testifying at trials.

 The ability to go from interrogation rooms to living rooms is so essential that some psychologists lecture detectives on both the influence of suit attire on suspects and the need to tip tailors to ensure that alterations hide the appearance of guns and handcuffs.

“I suggest they bring along every piece of equipment when they go buy it,” said Richard E. Ovens, who has given lectures to detectives in New York and other places. “You want the weapon to disappear.”

Dressing in a suit can set a boundary against what Guy O. Seymour, who has worked as a psychologist for the Atlanta police, called “crime-scene corruption.”

“Because they are all well dressed it establishes a barrier between them and the messiness,” Dr. Seymour said.

That was the case in some instances for Vernon J. Geberth, who wore two- or three-piece suits on the job before he retired as a detective commander in 1987.

 “I looked like a banker,” said Commander Geberth. “It put me in a different mode. It slowed me down: ‘Look at this guy. He is all dressed up and he is in an abandoned building.’ I am here to put things back together.”

 “I was above the fray,” Geberth added. “My psychological armor.”

But just because a detective knows the ropes of a homicide investigation does not mean he can find his way around a clothes closet. Some detectives are less than expert at color coordination and tailoring, committing crimes of fashion like pairing dark suits with deep blue shirts, or wearing oversize jackets made of cheap material.

With ample opportunities for cleaning or replacing blood-spattered or torn suits, detectives, whose salaries range from $68,000 to $93,000, share tips about favorite designers, like Joseph Abboud, Calvin Klein and Zanetti, and retailers, like Macy’s and Men’s Wearhouse.

 They also rely on Stewart H. Altschuler, known by detectives as the “Suit Man,” for advice. Most of his clients are detectives, and as a visit to his Midtown office suggests, his is no ordinary suit business.

On one wall is a rack of suit samples and framed letters of appreciation from detectives who have bought them. On another are feng shui candles and mounted martial-arts swords, acknowledging a world of both calm and combat.

 “I want to make them feel comfortable as soon as they come in,” said Mr. Altschuler, 56.

There are no set office hours. Mr. Altschuler operates on call to accommodate detectives after night shifts. He hauls samples to precincts, advising detectives on “power colors” like gray and black.

“Camel is less forceful,” he said. “But it depends on the area. In upper Midtown, a lot of detectives love the look.”

Proper fit is a matter of survival rather than vanity for men who are more likely to subdue a suspect than to peer at a computer all day. “For their own safety, a lot of our suits are side-vented and big-shouldered, in case they have to move around on the ground,” Mr. Altschuler said.

James Nuciforo, who retired as a transit detective in 2005, had a specific test for whether a suit fit. “One thing I would always do is put the suit jacket on and point both arms out in front as if I was holding the gun,” he said. “I always wanted to make sure I had enough room to do that.”

Detectives’ suits are rooted in New York City law enforcement history. In the early 1900s, a young detective named Michael Fiaschetti wrote about his exploits on the streets of New York in a memoir titled “You Gotta Be Rough,” in which he extolled the “dapper and sleek” and “staidly well-dressed” investigators of his time.

Some detectives trade fashion books, like “Dressing the Man: Mastering the Art of Permanent Fashion” by Alan Flusser. They don similar trench coats and ties, and draw inspiration from predecessors, as Detective Schroeder did when he was a rookie 20 years ago and looked up to the detectives in his neighborhood precinct.

Detective Schroeder and others go where the crime is, suit and all, no matter how messy it may get.

“About five or six years ago, trying to handcuff a bad guy, it took three of us to handcuff him,” Detective Schroeder recalled. “And we started rolling around on the ground. And it’s the streets of New York, and unfortunately they are not the cleanest streets at times. And I don’t know if it was glass or whatever, but I just ripped my whole pants suit.”

Detective Nuciforo remembers what he was wearing when his boss ordered him to be lowered by rope down a steep hillside to look for a corpse. “Suit, tie, wingtips,” he said. “The works.”

 “I have gone through garbage, I been through bloody crime scenes,” said Detective Nuciforo, who is now a consultant for “Law and Order.” “You do what you got to do.”

 Detectives are ribbed for food stains or wrinkled shirts, or if they commit style gaffes like wearing a short-sleeved shirt with a tie. Detectives in Manhattan are perceived to be better dressers than those in other boroughs because it is high-profile. Older detectives look down on younger ones who show up in jeans and keep a suit in a locker. And there are sins of attitude, such as unnecessarily flashing their shields like detectives on television.

 “This is not Hollywood,” said Robert Mooney, a veteran homicide detective who keeps his shield in his back pocket unless he is at a crime scene. “If you have to take a shield out to show who you are, you are not doing your job,” he said, paraphrasing the philosophy of a former partner.

Many detectives customize their gear. Detective Nuciforo reinforced his jacket lining so his handgun would not wear a hole in it. He had shoes fitted with Vibram soles for better traction. And he avoided belts with a clasp, which were more likely to pop open in a tussle, causing his hip holster to flop around and making it harder for him to draw his gun.

When Detective Mooney packs his gear — his weapon, handcuffs, cellphone, business cards, notepad and ammunition — he also tucks a stain remover stick into a suit pocket.

“You don’t want to look sloppy,” he said.