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Black, White and Visible

Recognizing that few color schemes are as effective in immediately identifying a police car as black and white, police agencies are beginning to change their fleets to black-and-white paint schemes. When an agency wants its vehicles to be seen, lightbars are key, but colors along with graphic design make a difference, too.

Starting out as the new chief two years ago in DeForest, WI, Robert Henze wanted the department’s vehicle design and uniform patch to symbolize a fresh start with a fresh outlook, and most important, professionalism. A 27-year veteran of law enforcement, Henze, chief in a village of about 8,000 residents, has always been fond of the black-and-white cruiser.

“To me, it’s a sign of professionalism,” he said. “It stands out. It’s more noticeable than cruisers that are just one color. I think it’s an eye-catcher. People take a second look when it goes by because it is two colors. Maybe any two-tone is like that, but I think when you have a unique color and a unique graphic design, people recognize and appreciate that.” Henze reported that overall feedback from the public has been positive.

Increased Visibility

Black-and-whites also stand out and catch attention in large cities. In Costa Mesa, CA, population of more than 100,000, residents started asking if the police department had more officers on the street.

“When we started getting black-and-whites into the fleet in 2003, it actually gave the appearance that there were more cops on the street, and there weren’t,” said Lieutenant Karl Schuler, now the commander of Costa Mesa’s SWAT team and a watch commander. “Since they’re so noticeable, people see them, and it’s a great way to make people in the community believe that we’ve got more cops in the field, and it gives them a better sense of security.”

Costa Mesa often is visited by tourists. They, too, identify that black and white mean “police,” because black-and-white paint schemes are common in other countries, as well. Worried about terrorism, tourists want to see police cars; they want to feel safe, he said.

In California, security guards are not allowed to drive black-and-whites. Before switching to black and white, Schuler said the police department’s vehicles looked very similar to some of the security guard cars in the area.

In 1953, when Costa Mesa was incorporated, the police department had patrol vehicles that were painted black and white. In the early 1970s, the department changed to solid white vehicles. The move was made with officer comfort (vehicles did not have air conditioning) and minor cost savings in mind.

A traditionalist who believes black-and-whites are true police cars, Schuler, the agency’s former traffic bureau commander, had to convince others—including the city council, the city manager and the mayor—that the move back to black and white would be a good one.

He put together a report with all the information he could find on the subject of converting to black-and-white police patrol vehicles. In his six-page report, he included a survey of 21 Orange County law enforcement agencies looking at what their paint schemes are (most are black and white) and the reasons that agencies gave for using black and white.

Other reasons for changing to black and white are included in his report. Airborne law enforcement units have an easier time spotting black-and-white vehicles. New black paint on older vehicles dresses up the fleet and allows the community to see cleaner, newer appearing patrol vehicles. Officers have a stronger sense of pride driving a vehicle that has a fresh, new appearance. “It’s a little bit more money to purchase black-and-whites, but I think the benefit of the visibility, and the identity really outweighs the extra cost,” he said.

After looking at Schuler’s analysis, the city council approved a budget adjustment to use existing budget funds to repaint all patrol cars to a black-and-white color scheme. And, new vehicles added to the fleet were ordered with the black-and-white paint scheme. Within three weeks, the entire fleet of 45 patrol vehicles was black and white.

National Standard

Ed Nowicki, executive director of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (, suggests all law enforcement agencies could benefit from having black-and-white marked vehicles.

“I like the black and white since it is a uniform display of sworn law enforcement,” he said. “It would be nice to have black and white as a national standard, much like the 911 system is a national standard for emergencies.”

Just as red identifies most firetrucks, he said black and white let people know that the vehicle is the real police. He’s spoken to many officers about this topic. Some say that a national standard would be nationalism of law enforcement, which will postulate the same uniforms and badges and a nationalized police force. Some agencies want their cars to be unique to their agency.

For example, when Nowicki was chief in Silver Lake, WI, the department had silver patrol vehicles. “I’m sure there are many agencies that want to put their specific mark on their marked patrol vehicles,” he said.

Nowicki’s also heard the argument for all-white vehicles because white provides high visibility at night and offers improved resale value. People would more likely buy a used white car versus a black-and-white car that they had to repaint. “These monetary concerns for resale are very real,” he said.

That is why the Carmel, IN Police in 2000 started switching most of the cruisers in its 65-vehicle fleet from navy-and-white to only white. The new look and design led to fewer headaches when orders were made and trades and resales have been easier, reported Assistant Chief Timothy J. Green, a 24-year veteran of law enforcement.

The Role of Graphics

Police vehicle graphics consultant and police fleet manager T.J. Brooks focuses on the overall appearance of a vehicle, including lightbars. His preferences hinge on graphic layout. While he recognizes there are valid claims that black-and-whites are instantly identifiable as police cars, he also recognizes that black-and-whites have added costs, including added cost to the initial factory purchase.

Brooks designed the Lynnwood, WA Police Department’s award-winning fleet graphics in 1996. The white cruisers, after retiring from the Lynnwood Police Department, became pool cars used by other city departments. The police department doesn’t want the planning department, for example, driving a black-and-white. By not having black-and-whites, the police department doesn’t have to worry about repainting the vehicles before they hit retirement.

When creating a highly visible police car—whether it’s painted primarily one color or two, Brooks reminds that graphics are key. They determine whether your police car will be more or less visible or recognized as a police car. Police graphics need to be highly visible and highly readable.

Some graphics designers tend to forget this easy principle and make layouts too busy. They add too many colors, too many lines and hard-to-read text. There is no purpose to being attractive if no one can read a design from a reasonable distance.

In the fleet graphics business since 1974, Ric Sisi, a designer and owner of Suburban Accents Inc. (, has seen many trends come and go. “The trend to go ‘back’ to a black-and-white color scheme seems to have been generated by everyone going to a solid white design with different graphics on the sides,” he said. “There are only so many designs, and only so much a graphic can do.”

The police chiefs with whom Sisi has spoken want to be able to recognize their patrol units at a multiple-jurisdiction operation. With all-white cars, they can tell the differences among cars by the designs on the sides.

Many chiefs are considering solid colors other than white, said Sisi, whose company specializes in designing, manufacturing and installing vehicle lettering. Dark blue, silver, burgundy and black seem to be favorites. Chiefs returning to black-and-whites are looking at different combinations of two-tones: all black with only a white driver’s door; driver’s and passenger door in white; hood, roof, deck lid and doors in white; fenders only in black, etc.

“They want to look professional and functional but not like everyone else,” he said. “The problem will be when they all go to black-and-whites, they will be the same as their neighbors again.” Sisi predicts the two-tone trend will reverse back to one tone in three to five years.

A new trend in marked patrol units in the not too distant future will be “a complete wrap,” he said. A vinyl wrap envelops the entire vehicle with any graphic, text or color. Although the cost to do this is more initially, once the vehicle is no longer being used as a cruiser, the vinyl can just be removed. A wrap can make any color of car black and white. Sisi has been creating wraps for buses, trucks, fleets and NASCAR racecars for more than a decade.

Today, decisions in police graphics and vehicle color schemes are individual agency choices—choices that maybe aren’t always as visible as black and white.

Rebecca Kanable is a freelance writer specializing in law enforcement topics. She can be reached at

Published in Law and Order, Jul 2006

Rating : 9.3

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