One thing we can probably agree on, is that police should be more colorblind… but while you may be thinking colorblind in the figurative sense – less racist cops – I mean colorblind… in the literal sense… because in the majority of police forces around the world, the colorblind are restricted from becoming police officers.
So today on Chromaphobe, we are going to take a tour around the world, stopping at 6 English speaking countries, [NZ, Canada, USA, India, UK, Australia] and explaining the color vision requirements for joining the police service in each, and YES, there is one city in the anglosphere, that will accept those with even the strongest colorblindness. Throughout, I’ll also be using the quirks of every country’s requirements to dive into one of the reasons these bans on colorblind cops exist, and why I think they could be scrapped.
If YOU’VE been caught unawares on your color vision deficiency when you’ve tried to join the police, first, I’m sorry, that sucks. Countless other applicants in your position from around the world have faced the same verdict. Of them, a few have had the insolence to challenge the ban – always unsuccessfully – and the resulting correspondence or proceedings are often freely available online. Reading through several of these cases, the police department, who now has to defend their ban on the colorblind, has had to cobble together some justification, which I have always found exceptionally weak.
For example, many of these police departments, regardless of the country, cite the same paper in their defense: a study from 2008, which gave a questionnaire to 500 active Northern Ireland police officers.
The relevant question asked “How important is good color vision for effective policing?” Not very shockingly, about 2/3s of them said “VERY important”. Does that prove the requirement is justified?
First off, I’d wager that each of those respondents was imagining having to do their job in black and white, which, yeah, would be a hell of a lot more difficult than doing it with red-green colorblindness.
Second, asking a bunch of color normals how they’d be able to police if they lost their color vision is like asking someone how they’d be able to tie their shoes if they lost their thumbs. If you were born without thumbs, you could probably tie your shoes just as well as anyone else. The colorblind have spent their whole lives with their deficiency and in that time, have accumulated an intricate arsenal of coping mechanisms that color normal police just can’t imagine. Plainly put, people who become colorblind, suck at being colorblind, but when you’ve lived with it your whole life, you know how to adapt.
Third, that question is missing A LOT of context. A similar question was posed by a much better-designed study from the government of California in 1984, which… interestingly… is never cited by police departments cobbling together a justification of their ban. This study focused on 17 visual skills determined to be used by the police and had officers RANK those in terms of importance to their job. Of the 17, the two involving color were ranked overall as the two LEAST important visual skills. Considered more important were dark adaptation, peripheral vision, glare tolerance… along with a dozen other skills unrelated to color vision. Besides visual acuity… how clear your far vision is… and SOMETIMES peripheral vision… NONE of those other skills, which are apparently MORE important than color vision according to police officers, are tested for.
The obvious rebuttal is that color vision is tested for because color blindness is so common, at about 4% of the population. But 3% of the under 60 population has peripheral vision loss, and THAT doesn’t seem to be prevalent enough to test for in most police departments, despite apparently being MORE important to a police officer’s job than color vision. No, I think the real reason it is so common to test for color vision, is because it’s so EASY to test for color vision, namely with the Ishihara Book. If it were harder or required expensive equipment, we would just not do it. That’s exactly why no police force tests for dark adaptation, despite ranking as the MOST important visual characteristic for cops… because THAT machine looks a hell of a lot more complicated and expensive than the Ishihara Book.
That’s just my theory though, because in the justifications of the bans, the police departments DO try to cobble together a few reasons that the bans make sense to them. Almost all of them boil down to three main categories: Person & Vehicle Descriptions, Firearms and Driving… each of which I’ll describe in the context of one of the countries we’ll be visiting, so let’s start the tour.
First stop is New Zealand… yeah, that’s right, nobody is gonna forget about you on THIS ch… of crap where’d they go. New Zealand Police start by screening for colorblindness with the Ishihara, but have a long list of allowable tests, where passing ANY of them is sufficient for acceptance. This should allow most mildly and moderately colorblind to get through. Oh, and if you need any more information on any of the tests I’ll be mentioning in this video, I’ve got some write ups on each of them in the glossary on the chromaphobe website. Link in the description.
Our next stop is Canada, where the RCMP has been following the advice of the Canadian Ophthalmologist Society and using the Ishihara Test as a screener and the Farnsworth D-15 arrangement test if the Ishihara is failed. The Ishihara test is designed to catch ever color vision deficiency, but the D15 is a lot more forgiving. About 50% of those who fail the Ishihara WILL pass the D15, which means most colorblind with mild and many with moderate defects can still pass it.
Every local police service that I found did the same as the RCMP. This includes Vancouver, where in 2014, a colorblind man, whose application to the police department was denied, filed a formal challenge. Their response told him to take it to the judicial system, which is formal talk for “whaddya gonna do hoser, sue us”.
The main reason they cited was that officers need to give and understand descriptions that involve color.
Imagine a cop has to… uh… defuse a bomb…
[the green wire… in 3, 2, 1, cut ah shit]
The colorblind would kill us all! Or maybe we all just watch too many movies and this scenario never actually happens in real life?
A more realistic use of color is probably:
[suspect is wearing a black leather jacket, red hat, gray van]…
But if he were colorblind. What would he have said!? Giving or following color-dependent descriptions like these are examples of DENOTATIVE color tasks, where the officer must compare a color to its name.
It’s no surprise that the colorblind make a lot of errors with these tasks. See a purple car, call it blue, see an orange shirt, call it green. Actually, that California study from before also tested officer’s ability to correctly name car colors, and the colorblind officers got about 50% wrong… which is not great. Certainly color normals would be perfect at these tasks, right? Well, they still got 25% wrong. Proponents of colorblind bans say that juries would lack the confidence in the testimonies of colorblind officers, but I feel almost the opposite. In real life, a colorblind officer would just take color out of the description much of the time, like…:
[suspect is wearing a dark hoodie]…
Which is impossible for anyone to screw up and still quite descriptive. Meanwhile, color normals will continue on with their color-obsessed descriptions, getting a quarter of the colors wrong. Hell, the colorblind just may end up making FEWER color mistakes than a color normal. Another way officers can compensate for colorblindness is to include some uncertainty in their descriptions. All colorblind people should understand their own colors of confusion, like I know very well which colors I see as identical. So if you find yourself chasing OJ Simpson down the highway, you can say:
[Suspect in 1993 white… or cyan… ford bronco]
Yet some think if uncertainty like that were explicitly acknowledged, a jury may have never convicted OJ… like… snort of course he would have still been convicted. Wait what? I mean, what’s worse: confidently giving a possibly incorrect color, or including the uncertainty directly in the description?
[suspect was wearing a blue or white shirt]
[suspect was wearing a black or brown wig]
Or how about any of a plethora of non-color descriptions:
[suspect is wearing a big watch]
[suspect dressed as batman]
Actually, you’ve probably heard the idea that the colorblind are better at seeing camouflage, well:
[suspect was dressed in camouflage]
I understand, color is still useful to color normal responding officers, but the colorblind are also good at compensating for our lack of color vision. For example, which of these descriptions do YOU think is more useful? The color:
[fleeing in a gold car]
Or the colorless:
[fleeing in a 2015 Nissan Altima with Virginia Tags]
Not to say every colorblind cop is going to have this level of observation skills… I’m just saying that selecting for those capable of giving the most specific descriptions just seems kinda like splitting hairs, and not a reason to disqualify someone from being an officer. I mean, women are supposedly both more observant and more specific with color naming than men… but how ridiculous would it be if we just – on those grounds – banned all men from being police officers? Careful… think about it for too long and it starts looking like a good idea.
Some people really think that some slight drop in color specificity would lead to the collapse of society. One particularly comical opponent of colorblind police officers wrote on reddit:
“If you can’t tell if the [suspect] was wearing a red hoodie or an orange hoodie, how will the other responding officers know who to tackle for robbing that little old lady…”
Let me just say… if you are an officer, who gets a description of a burglary suspect as “red hoodie” and tackles the first red hoodie wearing person you see… you rely TOO much on color… Ooh, sneaky devil.
Let’s say a colorblind officer receives a critical order:
“Shoot the man in the blue shirt!”
Standing before him are a man in a blue shirt and one in a purple shirt, but to the colorblind officer, they BOTH look blue… how do they know who to shoot? Now say a color normal officer receives a description, shoot the man in the blue jacket, but there are two men in blue jackets? How do THEY know who to shoot? Well, the exact same thing would happen in both situations… the officer would use any of the other 100 pieces of available information to make their decision.
I found it put best by Tony Long, who served a 25-year career as a colorblind officer in London’s Metropolitan Police and was described as the deadliest cop in London. His take:
“You don’t shoot someone based on the colour of their jacket. You shoot someone based on their actions.”
Speaking of shooting people… the next country is the US. The FBI and the vast majority of municipal police departments also follow the same standard as Canada, with the Ishihara as a screener and the D15 as the definitive test. However, most jurisdictions on the WEST COAST will start with the HRR test as a screener (which is similar to – but a way better test than – the Ishihara) and if that is failed, will give the option for a FIELD TEST.
This field test has been described in some online forums as walking down the street with an ophthalmologist completing denotative color tasks, that is:
- either naming the colors of objects as the doctor points to them, or
- pointing to objects of a certain color as the doctor names them.
Sounds like a pretty easy test, but it’s difficult to say how easy it is compared to the D15 because it’s obviously not standardized. There is no clear pass-fail criteria and the test conditions can be all over the place. Back in the 1970’s, it was common for the police to ask recruits to simply name the colors of toy cars on the desk, but they switched to the Ishihara for something more standardized.
The other advantage of tests like the Ishihara and HRR [pseudoisochromatic plates] are that they bypass color language, focusing ONLY on color vision. Most color-vision-critical jobs, like train driver, pilot, firefighter… rarely need to perform these denotative color tasks. THEIR tasks are all CONNOTATIVE: that is, you just need to understand the meaning behind a certain color signal, but color language is irrelevant.
However, we established earlier in this video that a police officer’s use of color would be highly denotative, way more than those others, so it definitely makes sense for these west coast states to use denotative, practical field tests instead of the D15. And if any jurisdiction has a comprehensive understanding of the color vision requirements of the police, it’s California. They have an amazingly comprehensive justification for all their vision requirements available online; link in the description. Anyway, we’ll be getting back to practical tests later, but first…
Over to India, which has had a historically negative view of the colorblind. It should be no surprise at all that all colorblind people are barred from the Indian Police Services. The IPS screens with the Ishihara Test, but the ultimate decision comes down to a test with the Edridge-Green Lantern, where you see tiny circles of light and have to name the color. Unlike the similar Farnsworth Lantern often used by other industries in the US, the 130 year old Edridge-Green Lantern is actually AS strict as the Ishihara. One study out of India showed that no subject that failed the Ishihara was then able to pass the Edridge-Green Lantern. So… sorry India, that means even the mildest of color vision defects is going to see you barred from the police.
My MAIN beef with India’s requirement though, is its got no nuance. Nobody with ANY hint of color blindness can do ANYTHING in the IPS. Hell, even administrative roles in the IPS are unflinchingly inaccessible to the colorblind, which makes no sense. Look, it would be silly to argue that colorblindness has NO effect on an officer’s performance, but my biggest objection to restrictions is that they are always absolute… being colorblind is not just a disadvantage for a recruit, it’s DISQUALIFYING. And to disqualify an otherwise exemplary candidate on the grounds of colorblindness is ridiculous. Actually, disqualifying ANYONE from ANYTHING on any single metric is ridiculous.
I had a friend in my engineering class who got As in every single class until suddenly, for whatever reason, failed some pointless supplementary communications class. Now imagine being a company with a policy that any failed class was a disqualifier, and instead of my friend, hiring an otherwise identical straight C student instead of the almost straight A student. Sounds like a terrible policy for everyone… except that C-student… I mean… Derek Chauvin passed his Ishihara… what quality colorblind candidate did Minneapolis pass up for that douchebag?
Of course, it’s not just color blindness that is disqualifying, there are so many other characteristics that can have you automatically stricken from consideration. In a world where we want to stop police departments from devolving into paramilitary organizations populated by a bunch of cookie-cutter brutes, it’s these hiring practices that kill the diversity of your police force. I’m simply saying, I understand accounting for colorblindness in a hiring RUBRIC, but using disqualification metrics is lazy and just making your police force weaker.
Our fifth stop is in the UK, whose rules vary slightly depending on the nation [England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland], but are pretty similar. Recruits are generally tested with either the D15 or City University Test. However, failing these tests does not disqualify you from working as an officer. Rather, it may ban you from being a rapid response driver or an armed officer. Ten years ago, this restriction wasn’t SO consequential since British cops are famously armed only with billy clubs and a dry sense of humor. Recently however, it has become newsworthy due to the roll out of TASERS to every officer… except the colorblind ones.
You see, the tasers use a laser sight, so the officer ostensibly needs to be able to see that laser to know where they’re pointing, because how else would I know where this gun is pointed? The problem is, this laser is red, and the colorblind, mostly protans, are really crap at seeing red lasers. I absolutely confirm that red lasers are my god damn nemesis and I may have some issues with aiming a laser-sighted taser. But instead of banning colorblind officers from carrying this device, which is touted as deescalating 90% of situations by just being drawn… just change the color of the fucking laser. Blue lasers, green lasers… way brighter and easier to see regardless of color vision.
Former gun-wielding London cop Tony Long, who I brought up earlier, had the following to say about the new rules:
“A lot of people are up in arms about it because it is nonsense. It’s some pen-pusher finding problems that don’t exist.”
And I couldn’t agree more.
A couple years back, there was a challenge to this policy citing data that taser-equipped officers are WAY less likely to be injured than their unarmed colleagues. A colorblind officer’s right to personal safety is therefore discriminated against by not being able to carry a taser. This challenge wasn’t on the basis of the policy being ableist, because people HATE to think of colorblindness as a disability, but on the basis of the policy being SEXIST, since men are much more likely to be colorblind. On the brightside, the challenge was successful and the policy was changed to allow colorblind officers to carry tasers with some extra training. But WHY did we need to bring SEXISM into that determination? Like, You mean to tell me that if colorblindness affected men and women equally that we’d still have this ridiculous no-taser-for-the-colorblind policy? …And after all that… those lasers are STILL red, not for a practical reason, but because some idiot probably thinks…
[Red is a lucky color]
Last stop on our tour is Australia. The federal police and NSW, Queensland and Victoria start with the Ishihara screener, which then leads to a complicated flowchart of possibilities that they keep fairly close to their chest. This allows them to use discretion, which can be good or bad, but also protects the nature of their proprietary, screen-based, practical tests where you must name some car and clothing colors. As I brought up earlier with the field tests on the American west coast, it would be nice if those were more standardized, and it seems like Australia has managed to do that to some degree, but I could find very little info on it, probably because it could get compromised if it was leaked. Fair enough. Where things start to get trickier, is where they treat protans and deutans differently.
If you’ve been with my channel for a while, you’ve probably seen the video I made on when Australia banned Protans – who make up about a quarter of the red-green colorblind – from getting commercial driver’s licenses. Well, the police did the same thing. Protans are completely excluded from consideration. In fact, a MILD Protan is less likely to become a Police Officer in Brisbane than a STRONG Deutan… and AS a Protan… they may have a point.
I argued in that other video that while Protans have trouble with some aspects of driving like reaction time to brake lights, we also have several adaptations like increased vigilance or increased following distance that we have subconsciously adopted. While controlled experiments show that Protans may be slightly more dangerous drivers, real traffic data, shows that Protans don’t appear to cause more accidents than color normals probably due to these subconscious adaptations. but Police Officers cannot afford the increased level of attentiveness that Protans must commit to their driving in order to compensate for their shortcomings, ESPECIALLY when they are in a high speed pursuit.
So being more strict on protans would totally make sense… if we assumed that all police in Australia drive a car… which they don’t. New South Wales has both a division for full time Bike Police and another for full-time mounted police. There is zero reason to absolutely discriminate against protans when those options are available.
But fret not east coast Australian protans, because in just a short 46 hour drive, you could be in PERTH. Western Australia actually handles color vision tests significantly differently… they, uh, don’t do em. No Ishihara. No D15. No practical test. They… don’t… care.
Now I know what Aussies think of Perth: that Perth ain’t worth the earth that birthed it… and that this is just another podunk policy that they’re too Bogan to do anything about. Then why does Western Australia have higher public satisfaction ratings than the police of every other state in Australia? Maybe they’re on to something? In fact:
Dear Western Australia Police Force,
As the only anglophone region in the world that doesn’t test police recruits for colorblindness… you should be advertising that fact… Think of all the highly-qualified colorblind recruits that couldn’t find a job in east australia, or even some of the other countries mentioned in this video. Time to capitalize on others’ mistakes.
So ends our world tour. Maybe it’s given you some hope. Honestly, it’s one of the last jobs I’d want, but… you gotta follow your dreams. You may just need to broaden that dream a little bit. There are actually a few decent alternative jobs within Law Enforcement that don’t follow the Paul Blart: Mall Cop pathway. For example:
- In Canada, being a customs and border agent has no color vision requirement, and
- In some US states, being a correctional officer – a prison guard – has no color vision requirement.
PLUS, I’ve read two stories online of people transitioning from these roles into a police department while bypassing the medical requirements. Sometimes you just gotta be flexible with your career… which is also why I’ll be starting my masters studies in September.
This is Chromaphobe.