April 23, 2014

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Police cruisers are back in black (and white)

HUDSON — Dave Robbins knew one big change he wanted to make when he became the police chief in Hudson a few years ago: Bring back the black-and-white police cruiser.

At the time, the city fleet was composed of silver cars. Robbins called them downright ugly, and some folks in town referred to them as the “Gray Ghosts.”

KAREN SCHIELY / AKRON BEACON JOURNAL VIA AP
Russ Grams, an officer with the Hudson Police Department, patrols a Hudson neighborhood Aug. 17.

“The black and whites look cleaner and crisper and are a little more professional,” said Robbins, who admits his respect for the traditional black-and-white stems from watching the television show “Adam-12.” “I think we’re taken a little more seriously.”

The iconic two-toned cruiser, which disappeared in many communities years ago in favor of solid whites, blues and silvers, is making a strong comeback throughout North America. Police departments from the small village of Lakemore, which has three vehicles, to the giant Ontario Provincial Police, which has a fleet of 1,200, are opting to return to the black-and-white cars, concluding that they are more identifiable as law enforcement vehicles and convey a sense of authority.

Ford Motor Co., the maker of the popular Crown Victoria, saw a 7 percent increase in orders for black-and-white cars from the 2006 to 2007 models. Black and whites now make up 22 percent of police vehicles ordered from Ford.

“I don’t care what they say, there’s nothing more stark in contrast than black and white,” said Ed Nowicki, executive director of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association in Twin Lakes, Wisc. “You see that black-and-white car, you know it’s the police.”

Springfield Township Police Chief John Smith has already pledged to replace the township’s white cruisers with black and whites. Tallmadge and Wooster also are converting their fleets, joining a long list of communities nationwide that includes Miami; Hartford, Conn.; Providence, R.I.; Toms River, N.J.; Fort Worth, Texas; Elmira, N.Y.; La Vista, Neb.; Mesa, Ariz.; and Little Rock, Ark.

Black-and-white cruisers first hit the streets several decades ago, said Dennis Wise, a retired police officer, current president of the American Federation of Police and Concerned Citizens in Titusville, Fla., and author of “Honor Above All Else: Removing the Veil of Secrecy,” which chronicles his 35 years in law enforcement.

Chicago police had all-black vehicles and started painting white lettering on them.

“This kind of made the car stand out,” Wise said. “You knew it was an emergency-type vehicle. You knew the person driving it was an authority.”

The black and whites were then made famous in such television shows as “Adam-12,” “Car 54 Where Are You?” and “Dragnet.”

But they fell out of favor for solid colors, in part because it costs more for the black-and-white paint job, which can add anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars to the cost of the vehicle. Black-and-white cars also have lower resale value.

With the rise of community policing in the 1990s, many departments also thought the black and whites were too sinister looking and unapproachable, said Robert Genat, author of “Police Cars in Action.”

Departments have experimented through the years with colors, striping and decals. Chicago once had powder blue and white, San Diego had green and white, and Cleveland went with lime.

But many law enforcement officials say there’s nothing like black and white.

Copley Township used to have white cruisers, then went to black and now is using black and whites.

“It’s distinctive. It’s traditional,” Copley police Lt. Luke Marchmon said. “One of the ideas of law enforcement is to be readily seen both by the good folks and the bad folks.”

Just being recognized as a police vehicle can help deter crime, Lakemore Police Chief Kenneth Ray said.

He ended up buying his first black-and-white cruiser because it was the only vehicle available and the department needed a car quickly. Now, partly because of the positive reaction from his officers and the public, he can’t imagine going back to a solid white.

“It’s kind of like a fire truck,” Ray said. “People expect a fire truck to be red and police cars to be black and white.”

Robbins, who has worked in Hudson for more than 25 years, remembers hearing complaints from residents that they never saw the police around town. He took that personally, knowing full well he had been cruising the streets on patrol.

He chalked that up to the cruiser. He never hears that complaint today.

Next year, the entire Hudson fleet will be black and white as the last of the silver cars are retired.

“It’s a tradition we needed to go back to,” Robbins said.