The comment was made just as the force begins its recruitment drive for 1000 new officers, and less than three weeks before the release of the findings of a commission of inquiry into police conduct.
Simon Calcinai, 20, was at the Careers Expo at the Westpac Centre in Christchurch on Sunday when two uniformed officers told him the scarf he was wearing – a Kathmandu product – was "gay".
"I was at the police table having a chat and the woman (officer) said, `You might want to lose that scarf'. The other guy then said, `Yeah, it's a bit too gay'," Calcinai said.
The male officer was Canterbury's senior recruitment officer, Kelvin McBride.
Calcinai, who was with his girlfriend at the expo, said he was showing interest at the police recruitment stall and was shocked by the comment.
"I was pretty shocked and didn't know what to say. I don't think this is appropriate behaviour and I think that people should be made aware of these negative attitudes," he said.
"He should think twice about (saying) that sort of thing.
"I guess he was joking, but it hushed me up a bit. Someone else could have been deeply upset."
Calcinai said he and friends had been baffled by the comment on the dull-orange scarf.
"He is the only person who has ever commented on the scarf," he said.
McBride had since sent an email apology to him for making the comment.
"Unfortunately, you have taken the comments personally and it certainly wasn't intended to offend. Yes, we do recruit lesbian and gay male officers," the email said.
Canterbury police human resources manager Chris Shield told The Press yesterday that McBride recalled the incident and acknowledged referring to the scarf as "gay".
"The comment was made in the context of general banter that occurs at these events. Kelvin is very clear that there was absolutely no intention to offend," Shield said.
Calcinai said it "wasn't a particularly good start" to the police bid to recruit 1000 new officers.
National law and order spokesman Simon Power said the comments were inappropriate and would be "extremely unhelpful" to the Government's effort to attract new officers.
"I have been concerned the Government would have difficulty getting 1000 new police. Comments such as this will do nothing to alleviate my concerns. It is working against what should be a positive recruitment campaign," he said.
Police national recruitment officer Inspector Dawn Bell said police were "looking to reflect society in general".
"The fact of the matter is that the New Zealand police have no bias as to who they employ," she said.
Last year, police ran "inclusiveness training" sessions to try to eliminate homophobia in the force, Bell said.
The head of police equal employment opportunities at the time of the sessions, Inspector Peter Cowan, said at the time that he had concerns about the views of some members of the police.
"Unfortunately, we do have some people with personal beliefs that don't belong in this century," he said.
"We are trying to change the culture, but I am aware there are some police officers who have stated they will not work with gay police officers."
Calcinai said he did not think he would become a police officer.