It's Not Just ‘Black & White’

By varying police vehicles’ traditional black and white exterior colors, fleets can significantly impact a unit’s overall look, demonstrating it’s not all “black and white.”

March 2010, Government Fleet - Feature

by Mike Scott - Also by this author

North American police cars traditionally are known for their black and white colors. For many decades, car doors and roofs of most police units were painted white, while the trunk, hood, front fenders, and rear quarter panels were painted black.

These fleet vehicles typically came in a single color, most commonly white or black. The contrasting color was added to distinguish the units from civilian vehicles.

Over the years, police and sheriffs' departments and state police agencies broadened preferred color schemes to include a variety of colors beyond the customary black and white look and feel. However, in recent years, many agencies returned to a more traditional black and white look for a variety of reasons.

Creatively Following Tradition

Changing the color scheme of patrol vehicles for the Bloomington, Ind., police department was an extended process, but the department decided to return to black and  white vehicles, said Chief Mike Diekhoff.

However, the department found a cost-effective way to use the black and white colors. The 20-unit patrol car fleet purchases all-black Ford Crown Victoria models and adds a white wrap-around decal to cover the perimeter of the cars, Diekhoff said.

Made of vinyl, these decals are guaranteed for five years and incorporate the department's logo. The decals are placed on the vehicles by a third-party provider. By ordering all-black cars as opposed to models with a black and white paint scheme, Diekhoff estimated Bloomington saved as much as $1,000 per vehicle.

Previously, Bloomington used all-white vehicles. However, several other area agencies, including the Monroe County Sheriff's Department, had switched to all-white patrol vehicles.

"We wanted our vehicle to stand out more and this really helps us accomplish our goal of making our patrol cars different," Diekhoff said. "But we also had to do it in a cost-effective way."

"Even our sheriff's department switched from two-tone browns to a white paint scheme," Diekhoff said. "The black and white look is traditional and is obvious to residents in our community it is a Bloomington police car."

Changing the Color Scheme

Beginning in the 1970s, police vehicle colors began to vary more, largely due to minimal costs. The widespread use of computer graphics and vinyl striping was a cost-effective way to add color and "flavor" to the cars. A number of colors were used in '70s- and '80s-era police units, including blues, greens, browns, beiges, and tans. Darker, non-black colors were traditionally used by rural police agencies and sheriff department vehicles.

Some changes to a vehicle's color scheme can be relatively subtle, yet can significantly impact the vehicle's overall look. Six years ago, the Pennsylvania State Police added a strip of highly reflective yellow and black material to the rear of its marked patrol vehicles for increased visibility, said then State Police Commissioner Jeffrey Miller.

The same could be said for the Colorado State Police. In 1997, Colorado changed the look of its state patrol vehicles from a non-traditional color scheme to a darker hue. Its Ford Crown Victoria models, for example, included a main color with black and light blue trim on the four side doors.

This color scheme was changed to the current color palette for several reasons, said Sgt. John Hahn, Colorado State Police public information officer. At the time, research indicated black, light blue, and gray would give police vehicles a distinctive look, while allowing them to blend with the surrounding environment.

Lighter blue and gray shades also reflect colors used by early Colorado State Police vehicles, Hahn said.

"Our decision was based on the desire to respect the history and background of our agency while still adhering to some smart, tactical strategies," Hahn said. "We wanted a new, fresh look that adhered to the progressive nature of our agency while staying mindful of the past."

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