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City police shifting from white to black patrol cars

The 2014 Chevy - Baltimore City police car
The 2014 Chevy - Baltimore City police car (Courtesy of the Baltimore Police, Baltimore Sun)

The white Baltimore police patrol car — a familiar presence on city streets for decades — is slowly being phased out and replaced in a new color: black.

Over the next few months, residents can expect black-marked 2014 Chevy Caprice patrol cars cruising the streets of Baltimore. The change was requested by officers who wanted to appear more professional in updated cars.

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The new cars are adorned with a blue streak that runs at an angle on both sides of the car along with a police shield and "Baltimore Police" in white lettering. Police FoxTrot helicopters and many mobile command trucks have had a similar design for more than a decade.

"It's one that we're proud of, and it's one that we think the people of Baltimore are really going to like," police spokesman Lt. Eric Kowalczyk said.

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It's not the first time the department has embarked on a new color scheme. The city's police cars were black after World War II when the color was the only shade available. Since then, the cars have been black and white, and then blue and white. In the 1990s, the department planned to shift to baby blue to present a "friendlier image," but the plan was shelved two years and $2 million later.

Former Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris said he wanted to switch to black because he felt the white cars were too closely linked to, of all things, a 1970s television comedy. He also thought sleek black cars would give officers a sense of pride. The change was announced but never occurred.

The current switch is also being driven by the department's desire to boost officers' flagging morale. Less than 10 percent of Baltimore officers described morale as "good" in a department survey last year.

Commanders believe that raises approved last year, a more favorable work schedule and the new patrol cars will help change that. The cruisers also feature seats that adjust more easily, and light and siren switches in more accessible locations.

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The new black cars will be added to the current fleet as older vehicles are replaced, Kowalczyk said. The changeover won't cost additional money, officials said.

The department bought 30 black cars this year, and they are currently being outfitted for patrol.

Baltimore police union president Gene Ryan believes the cruisers are a big improvement. A committee of officers of various ranks picked the design, color scheme, lettering and marking, police said.

"If you let somebody have ownership, it always boosts morale," Ryan said. "That car is their office."

It's an iconic shift for the city.

Millions of television viewers recognize Baltimore's white fleet of Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptors, Chevy Impalas and Caprices thanks to the police television drama "The Wire."

Before that, Kowalczyk noted, the 1990s TV show "Homicide: Life on the Streets," also based in Baltimore, featured different white cars from that era.

"Every design has been iconic in its own right, whether it's been seen on television shows or in the common understanding of the people of Baltimore," said Kowalczyk.

The Police Department has briefed some community groups on the change. Many have embraced it, especially if it helps officers do a better job. The city has significant problems to confront, they said, including more than 190 homicides this year.

"Times are changing. ... You're reaching into the millennial generation, and they're into a more modern and sleek look," said Joyce Green, president of the Central District Police Community Relations Council. "I want something that the officers like that they designed, and they can take pride in. And that should boost anyone's morale."

Black police cars are common in Maryland. Bel Air police are still changing over their fleet since making the shift to black in 2012 after 25 years of white cars with green lettering. Howard County police and Maryland State Police also have black vehicles. Maryland Transportation Authority police switched to black in 1988.

"The primary justification was to achieve a new distinctive look, as the agency was in transition at the time," MdTA police spokesman Sgt. Jonathan Green said.

Police cars painted primarily white or a combination of white and black have been historically associated with policing. Some research shows those schemes are the easiest to distinguish as related to law enforcement.

Researchers have also studied whether white or black-and-white cars serve as better crime deterrents than other cars in other colors, and have come to differing conclusions.

A 2009 Federal Emergency Management Agency study on the visibility and conspicuousness of emergency vehicles found that "no single particular color" appeared to be the optimal choice for emergency vehicles to be seen under varying conditions.

Mark D. Thomas, professor of cognitive science at Albany State University, researched whether color made any difference as to how fast the mind recognizes a police car.

Black-and-white cars, he said, are the most recognizable police cruisers because the color pattern has been most widely used by agencies. That combination, he said, also sticks out more than other shades.

But he also found the amount of time it takes the mind to recognize black-and-white cars versus all-white cars as police vehicles is less than half a second. The amount of time it takes the mind to recognize a black car as a police vehicle is also probably negligible, he said.

He said many police agencies use either white or a combination with white as the primary color because they believe it better represents "community policing," where officers aim to be visible and easily accessible. State police agencies, whose officers roam highways, often use dark colors, he said, because troopers want to sneak up on speeding motorists.

"If [police[ want something more stealthy, black is more stealthy than white," Thomas said. "But if they want something that will be seen more, especially at night, then they want white."

Baltimore police said they don't believe they'll lose any visibility with the new design.

"I don't think there's going to be anyone mistaking them," Kowalczyk said.

Past efforts to change patrol car colors have backfired. The department dumped the baby-blue scheme partly because many officers and residents felt the cars made police look soft.

In 2001, the department began making the change to black when then-Mayor Martin O'Malley learned of the plan, according to Norris, who was commissioner at the time.

Norris said O'Malley, now governor, demanded the commissioner stop the changeover because he felt black would project an image of a force that was overbearing and intimidating.

O'Malley could not be reached for comment Friday.

"So I painted everything else those colors," Norris said. "The command vehicles, the helicopter, everything else."

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Norris said he also ordered other changes to boost morale to make up for the pay raises he couldn't give officers. He swapped out 9 mm service weapons for more powerful .40-caliber guns and lifted a ban on the use of espantoons — the wooden nightsticks that Baltimore officers had used for generations.

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"You can't pay them what they deserve, but you can give them things that will help them in their jobs," he said.

The white cars especially rankled Norris when a research firm showed him that the lettering on the side of the cars matched the font used on the credits of the "Mary Tyler Moore Show."

Black police cars, he said, would have projected a tougher image.

"I just thought it commanded more respect," Norris said.

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