Thursday, March 27, 2008

Squad cars help determine police personality

Picture the Chicago of the near future, where police stop someone they suspect of doing something illegal.

Once they figure they have enough evidence to justify taking the person into custody, they cuff him, read him his legal rights (or risk the Wrath of Miranda), shove him into the backseat of an SUV, then drive away to the nearest district station with a lockup facility.
Something similar to this Chevy Tahoe could soon be a part of the public image conveyed by the Chicago Police Department. Photograph provided by

NO, YOU’RE NOT imagining things. Police Superintendent Jody Weis – who constitutes a new image for the Chicago police in that he’s a former FBI agent rather than a one-time patrol officer who worked his way up through the ranks – said Wednesday he wouldn’t mind if the city started purchasing Chevrolet Tahoes for use by the police department.

That would mean putting to rest the trusty vehicle that has come to be associated with squad cars of police departments across the United States – the Ford Crown Victoria.

Weis, in speaking at a Chicago Crime Commission luncheon, said Chicago’s harsh winter weather is what is motivating him to consider the vehicle most commonly associated with schlepping the kids around to soccer practice.

He says the vehicle in use by so many multi-kid families with activities will be better able to take the heavy-duty use that police officers put on their vehicles, particularly if they have to also endure the Midwest version of winter – which isn’t anywhere near as fluffy as a winter in, say, San Diego.

BUT THE IDEA that someone being arrested as a criminal suspect will now get subjected to the same transportation experience as a trio of kids being driven by their mother to basketball practice, art class and piano lessons is somewhat lame.

I can’t help but wonder if the Chicago Police Department will lose a certain intimidation factor that is intended when police squad cars (particularly those with uniformed officers in them) come driving down the street.

Admit it. When you see a police car in the distance, you immediately give yourself a double-check just to make sure you’re doing nothing that a police officer could even remotely claim gives him probable cause to pull you over and check you out.

Are you going to feel the same intimidation if you see an SUV coming up behind you? Even if painted with the police department logo, the overall effect just won’t be the same.
The black and white of a Los Angeles police squad car is meant to intimidate, while the battered condition is testament to the harsh treatment police put their vehicles through. Photograph provided by

THAT INTIMIDATION FACTOR is what is behind the decision of the police department in the Chicago southwest suburb of Worth (also the final resting place of late Mayor Richard J. Daley).

The police there are due for new police cars, and the chief, John Carpino, is insisting on ditching the current Dodge Intrepids painted white with a blue city logo on the side. Instead, he wants the Crown Victorias, painted black and white.

“Black and white cars show a strong police presence,… they look a bit more intimidating,” Carpino told the SouthtownStar newspaper at the time the decision was made earlier this month. “Bad guys don’t look at logos, but they see black and white, and they know it’s a cop car.”

Just how soon these changes in image will take place is yet to be determined. Like anything else, it is a matter of budget and money available in order to purchase new cars.

SQUAD CARS ARE a particularly expensive item for city governments, since cities can’t decide to go for the cheapest vehicle possible or decide to go for something that might get better gas mileage.

A police officer on patrol needs a powerful vehicle, one that might even be considered a gas guzzler. And police officers are hard on their vehicles. When they are in pursuit of a suspect who is in flight, they are going to push their car to the max in order to ensure the criminal does not get away.

If that means they have to do some things to their car that would make a car buff flinch in disgust (and a mechanic drool in delight at the thought of the repair bill), then so be it.

But even more important than the occasional high-speed chase is the simple fact that police officers are on duty 24 hours a day (at least they’re supposed to be). The same cars are used by different officers on each shift.

IT IS NOT uncommon for one officer to finish his shift, drive his squad back to the police station and hand the vehicle off to another officer beginning his shift – all without the engine ever being turned off. There can even be instances where a police car’s engine runs for 24 hours at a time – despite the stereotype of a cop catching a nap in his squad, while crime breaks out around him.

That’s “Around the Clock” use of a car, which is something that most people can’t imagine putting their vehicles through. It is easy for a police car to have 30,000-35,000 miles put on it per year, and for a single police car to be completely shot after about three years.

Why else do you think used police cars are auctioned off at such cheap prices? Mechanically, they’re reduced to junk and whatever one pays for the vehicle, it is too high a price.

YET POLICE DEPARTMENTS, if they are to truly respond promptly to incidents, need cars that are durable and reliable. One can’t scrimp on police cars when setting the police department budget.

I still remember one of the big “controversies” I wrote about back when I was a municipal reporter some two decades ago for the old Chicago Heights-based Star Newspapers. Three squad cars in pursuit of a robber in Oak Forest all sustained mechanical breakdowns.

Faulty automobiles allowed the robber to get away, and it became a big political stink in the southwest suburb as to who was at fault for allowing so many defective police vehicles to be on the road at once.

GOVERNMENTS HAVE TO take the financial hit and buy the vehicles (which can go for about $22,000 each), although under state law, municipalities are required to accept bids from car dealerships and must buy their vehicles from the dealership with the lowest bid.

So while it will be a few years before all the current police squad cars are retired from active duty, it is likely to be soon, in the city of Chicago, that we will have to do a double take when we see someone throwing a tantrum in the backseat of an SUV to determine if it is a spoiled child or a future criminal defendant.

And it might be in the near future that police in places such as Worth (which is a tiny town barely two square miles in size) wind up looking more intimidating than “Chicago’s finest.”


EDITOR’S NOTES: Chicago Police Superintendent Jody Weis sees new squad cars (,0,7636840.story), along with better equipment and standardized firearms, as being ways for the police department to put forth a more professional image.

“The Friendly Village” of Worth wants to intimidate people to keep them from committing (,031108worthcopcars.article) what little crime does occur in the suburb that borders Chicago’s southwest side.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The link below addresses both the issue of the POLICe use for Chevy Tahoes and the black and white. The displayed Tahoe is in extensive use by the Ontario Provincial Police (the 3rd largest deployed POLICE force in North America). If you think that doesn't look intimidating when it pulls up behind you, lights flashing, I don't know what will.