Critics find darker cruisers 'disturbing'
Oct 30 2016
TORONTO - Toronto's police force isn't the only Canadian municipal law enforcement agency to give its vehicles a makeover that critics say makes them seem more militarized, aggressive and also, possibly, less safe.
Police services across the country, including Vancouver and Calgary, are replacing their aging fleets with cars painted in darker hues, like Toronto's switch from white with red and blue stripes, to dark grey with white reflective lettering.
Last week, Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders acknowledged a "backlash" to the recent colour change, a decision he admits he made without a lot of thought or consultation.
The civilian oversight board has asked for a report on the fleet and Saunders hasn't ruled out backtracking on the planned rollout.
When the Calgary Police Service went looking for a design change, it switched the colour of its cars from white - with red and blue stripes - to a black-and-white paint job.
Some Calgarians, "a vocal minority" feel it makes the vehicles too "aggressive," Const. Riley Babott wrote in a spirited defence on Facebook that he called The Black & White Debate.
He said naysayers must "suffer from chromophobia," which is an irrational fear of colour.
"I can't identify with this feeling because I don't find inanimate objects or colours to be capable (of) being aggressive," Babott wrote. "It is a very identifiable look for police vehicles dating back many decades and used throughout the world."
In 2014, the Vancouver Police Department began replacing its aging fleet of white Crown Victorias with black Dodge Chargers, with an Aboriginal-designed thunderbird over the front fender.
The VPD said it had overwhelming support for the new design, but a local advocate told a Vancouver radio station vulnerable people might not feel comfortable approaching one of the "intimidating" vehicles.
And the topic of cruiser colours isn't just being discussed in big cities.
In Barrie, city councillors have asked the police board to explain the "business case and research done" to rebrand the city's cruisers from white to navy blue, the Barrie Examiner reported last week.
"The current (navy blue) colour scheme and inability to distinguish between a soccer mom and a police car appears to be counter-intuitive," Councillor Michael Prowse told the newspaper.
"Thus far, this has been the only negative 'backlash' we have seen," Barrie Police Service Const. Nicole Rodgers wrote in email to the Star. "We pride ourselves on being connected and engaged to our community by our daily actions, rather than the colour of our vehicles."
Former Toronto police chief Julian Fantino said the criticism today reminds him of the blowback when officer shirts changed from baby blue to black.
"We got that with the black shirts, this flurry of rhetoric about storm troopers and back to the Nazi era, and on and on. In a way it was comical if not ridiculous," he said Friday.
Fantino, former commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police, also remembers experts objecting to his decision to transition that force's fleet back to the traditional black-and-white cars, beginning in 2007.
OPP lore has it Fantino was inspired to make the change after spotting some black and white cows grazing in a field at the Big Curve Acres Farm on his daily commute to headquarters in Orillia.
Told this, Fantino roared with laughter. "No, what inspired me was the good men and women of the OPP who wanted them back." He listened to what they - not the experts - said on what made them more visible and safer.
The numbers back that up, he said.
Reintroducing the black-and-whites was one of several initiatives to make Ontario roads safer and it worked, he said. Fatalities dropped dramatically from 451 in 2007 to 323 in 2008, a downward trend continues today.
Rather than menacing, rural and small town Ontario residents loved that old was new again. "If you need a cop, you need a cop, you don't care if they come in a black and white, a pink car, you don't care if they're a man or woman."
But Johnathon Vaughn Strebly, ethics chair and president of the Graphic Designers of Canada, said policing agencies seem unaware that "there's a real connection between the use of colours and perceptions," and that these designs convey "oppressive, aggressive, intimidating and combative traits."
Strebly argues Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary appear to be influenced by TV, and films such as Robocop and Batman, which is "fine in a fantastical, science fiction mode." U.S. law enforcement and militaristic influence is also undeniable, he says, adding it's "a disturbing trend to say the least."
There will always be the need for the undercover, covert aspect of policing, "but when that becomes the norm in regular community exposure value, then we've lost sight of what it is we're trying to do for our community assistance," Strebly said from Vancouver.
Dr. Stephen S. Solomon, a retired optometrist from Oswego, N.Y., and an emergency services consultant, agrees grey "is not a good colour," if you want "the presence of law enforcement in the neighbourhood to be a positive, good feeling sort of a thing."
As well, rather than enhancing visibility, grey is a "very camouflaging colour. It does not stand out well against background," said Solomon. His research has focused on emergency vehicle safety and vehicular technology that improves visibility and reduces accidents.
"Law-abiding, good citizens want to know there's . . . a police cruiser on their block every now and then. It's a reassurance that 'we're watching your neighbourhood, we're taking care of you.'"
And having highly visible police vehicles acts as a deterrent to criminals and, on city streets and highways, speeding motorists. Drivers often can't hear wailing sirens until an emergency vehicle is closing in, and even flashing lights can be difficult to see in well-lit Toronto, Solomon said.
"Flashing lights are important, but so is vehicle colour. So it all works together as a team."
Told of Solomon's opinion, Saunders said he wasn't going to "compete against an optometrist and hopefully he won't compete against me in law enforcement."
In Europe, many law enforcement agencies - and highway construction crews - paint their vehicles in lime-yellow, which is "on the top of the visibility pyramid of paint colour," Solomon said.
"It is the colour of choice for safety. It stands out against all common backgrounds."