During my time at Centralia College in the criminal justice program, we talked a lot about the concept of “community policing” as a law enforcement philosophy. One of the foundations of the philosophy taught us that a visible police presence is statistically a deterrent to crime, known as “general deterrence” (as opposed to actually getting pulled over, which is known as “specific deterrence”).
Even a step further — on what’s known as the “force continuum,” the very first step in a proportional law enforcement response to a potential crime is “visible police presence,” because, again, we know that visible law enforcement officers — and their vehicles — deter and discourage criminal acts.
So, I was a little concerned when I saw the first dark gray Ford F-150 purchased by the Sheriff’s Office. It seemed like an interesting choice to put flat black vinyl graphics on a dark gray vehicle.
In December, the Sheriff’s Office made public their intent to fully transition their fleet from bright silver to the dark gray and black color scheme.
That same month, a woman in Centralia reported that a man sexually assaulted her after falsely identifying himself as a police officer during a phony traffic stop. Just before that locally reported incident, a man was arrested and charged in Vancouver, Washington, for an incident where he posed as a police officer, kidnapped and raped a woman after transporting her to his home (in what the victim believed to be an unmarked car).
Decommissioned law enforcement vehicles are advertised to the public on government surplus websites. Law enforcement-grade light bars and the like are available for purchase on Amazon.com. If someone really wanted to, it wouldn’t be hard to create a pretty darn good undercover law enforcement vehicle replica. So, lack of clear, easy-to-identify markings for law enforcement vehicles is a concern.
I certainly don’t think reduced visibility of identifying graphics on a law enforcement vehicle increases public confidence and trust during traffic stops.
I mean, it’s not that it doesn’t look cool — but “cool” shouldn’t be the priority. Function comes first.
This past Monday, I was driving through the Port of Chehalis when I observed a law enforcement officer conducting a traffic stop. As I passed the parked vehicles, I was barely able to make out a couple of black letters in the word “Sheriff” on the side of the law enforcement truck — I had suspected that it was a Lewis County deputy, but the barely visible lettering confirmed my suspicions.
I noted that the black vinyl graphics had no reflective properties.
About this time two years ago, the county was in the process of working to adopt Ordinance 1257 — the ordinance concerning the county’s use of unmarked vehicles. The ordinance proposed specific language that broadened the county’s legal ability to use unmarked vehicles. Adoption of the ordinance was delayed multiple times and many of the citizens’ concerns during public comment centered around the fear that they would be unable to discern a legitimate police officer from an imposter, if the county increased the use of unmarked vehicles. Especially in outlying and rural areas, and at night.
Despite all of the public testimony through that process in 2015, which was reported on over several months by The Chronicle, the Sheriff’s Office seems to be taking an opposite approach, further reducing the visibility and identifiability of their vehicles.
I feel strongly that the Sheriff’s Office has taken a step backward here, despite clear citizen concerns.
Graphics on police cars send a message and set a tone for the agency. “Call 911.” “Protect & Serve.” These messages are traditionally, intentionally prominent. When citizens see police cars in their neighborhood, there is a factor of feeling just that much safer.
Friday afternoon, I hand delivered a five-page letter to the Sheriff’s Office outlining my specific concerns on this topic. I have personally requested, as a professional graphic designer and someone who studied criminal justice, that the Sheriff’s Office incorporate an additional color to their graphics that specifically increases the contrast of their graphics and identifiability of their vehicles.
If the Sheriff’s Office truly understood the concerns of the citizens regarding unmarked vehicles two years ago, I don’t think we would have seen this move toward less visible graphics happening now.
I suppose their response to Friday’s hand-delivered letter will tell us more.
Brittany Voie is The Chronicle’s senior media developer. She can be reached at email@example.com.