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.


Read the full 5-page letter delivered to the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office by Brittany Voie here.



Brittany Voie is The Chronicle’s senior media developer. She can be reached at bvoie@chronline.com.

(5) comments

Bob Bozarth

As one of around twenty citizens that testified in opposition to the passage of Ordinance 1257 I would like to thank you for taking the time to speak out on this subject. Your observation is spot on. I might add we have municipalities in Lewis County that have followed the logic of the Sheriff's Dept. such as Napavine that has no marking on two of their patrol cars at well. I hope your letter will start a conversation that will lead us back in time a bit when all patrol vehicles were well marked.


Thank you Brittany for bringing this problem out in the open. I have been very concerned about the fact that many of the local law enforcement vehicles are not marked where children can see that they are actually someone who could be a help in a time of need. I live in Napavine and when we hired the Police Chief who is here now he got a new white car with no maarkings on it. I asked him if he wasn't going to put something on it so people would know it was a Police vehicle and he said he couldn't because it was a leased vehicle and the lease company wouldn't let them put decals on the vehicles. I think this is so wrong. He is around town a lot and children are taught to go to a Police officer for help if they need it and how are they to know that a plain white car with no markings on it is a safe person to go to if they need help. I was really concerned about it, and now it has been several years, he still has the car and it still has no identifiable markings on it. The other Police Chiefs have all seen fit to have cars that have said Napavine Police on the side so at least you could tell they were law enforcement or safe people to go to in time of need. No wonder so many perverts are kidnapping children these days. They don't know if the are legitimately officers or not. Shouldn't the police officers be held to a standard that makes everyone in the community feel safe, especially the children?


We can all boil this issue down into two words: Revenue enhancement. It has nothing to do with safety.


I have to agree with the more visible as a deterrent. Stealthy cars are necessary for obvious reasons of surveillance and such. But, I feel it is safer driving and walking when we see the big sheriff car with lights and all. I also become more self conscious about what I am doing behind the wheel. I think we all do and it's a good thing to be more self aware.


I don't know of anything that is more of a deterrent of crime than the sight of a police vehicle! Isn't that part of what a police officer is suppose to do...by driving vehicles that are unmarked it looks more like their trying to entrap folks to just make more money off of them than it is to protect or deter crime. Is that what law enforcement is becoming more about today? Just finding ways to make more and more money from it's citizens instead of protecting them.

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