The hot new trend in law enforcement is actually an old one — painting patrol cars in a retro black-and-white scheme.
Police agencies across the Valley are giving a new look to their white cars because they insist the black-and-white contrast boosts their visibility and makes average folks more likely to approach cops.
Tempe could become the next East Valley community to join the retro movement. The City Council will consider the change tonight, potentially following places including Mesa, where police say their old white cars with a blue stripe didn’t get noticed as much as new cars painted black and white.
“The public noticed that more than the white car and thought we were out there more than we were before, and actually we weren’t,” Mesa Sgt. Chuck Trapani said.
A nationally known expert on emergency vehicle colors agrees the cars have been good for public relations. But Dr. Stephen Solomon said the color scheme is more dangerous for officers because it takes longer for the eye to process the two colors. That could increase the risk of other drivers running into the black-and-white cars at intersections, Solomon said.
“You visually, or perceptually, cut it in half and you don’t identify it as quickly,” he said. “A single color is the best color because you can see the silhouette of the vehicle better.”
Solomon has researched emergency vehicle colors and collision prevention since 1969 and has criticized the blackand-white trend. Solomon, an optometrist in Owego, N.Y., has been recognized by organizations such as the National Safety Council for his research into collision prevention.
Tempe police want to make the switch after hearing the black-and-white scheme has boosted the visibility of law enforcement in other cities, Sgt. Mike Horn said.
“Other agencies that have gone to the black-and-whites have had an overwhelmingly positive response from the community,” he said. “They are more easily recognizable from a police car that is white and blue.”
The colors also help when a police helicopter is involved because the contrast makes it easy for the pilot to pick out a police car, Horn said.
The switch would cost $150,000 and take several months to repaint about 90 vehicles.
Tempe’s cars sport a blue stripe now. So do cruisers in many other Valley communities.
The black-and-white mix has the federal government’s approval, through the National Bureau of Standards at the U.S. Department of Commerce. And police like to point out that the new look is a big hit with cops.
“It’s really sharp,” Horn said. “It’s something the officers are going to be very proud to be driving.”
A year ago Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio switched from white and gold to black and gold. Arpaio wants his deputies to drive cars that stand out from municipal police departments.
“I like doing things different,” Arpaio said. “I like the public to know when they see a car, it’s the deputy sheriff.”
Most police agencies also use reflective material on the cars to boost visibility, an idea Solomon endorses. He encourages police to use it more liberally and called the reflective material “the most underestimated material” for boosting vehicle safety.
White cars with blue reflective tape are better than black and white, Solomon said. The best color is lime-green, he said, which is the color the Rural/Metro Fire Department has used for decades. The eye picks that up much easier than any other color.
“One of the most ridiculous things we have today are redand-white fire trucks,” Solomon said. “They are not visible at all. They’re three times more likely to be in accidents than a lime-green fire truck. (But) the fire service uses it because it’s traditional. Same thing with the police.”
Vehicle paint is even more important because lights and sirens aren’t as effective as many believe, Solomon said. Modern cars block so much sound that drivers often don’t hear emergency vehicles until it’s too late. And flashing lights can get overpowered by other lighting.
Solomon said it’s “frightening” that law enforcement agencies are changing the color with so much consideration to public relations when the new look decreases the safety of those driving the cars.
“PR is great when that sucker’s parked,” he said. “It’s terrible when that vehicle is moving. You lose a lot of PR when you hit somebody at an intersection.”
Police car colors across the Valley Arizona Department of Public Safety: White with a blue stripe.
Chandler: White with a blue stripe.
Gilbert: Black and white. The town was the first Valley agency to adopt the retro look, in 1999.
Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office: Black and gold, which replaced white and gold about a year ago.
Mesa: Switched to black and white in 2005 when buying new cars. It will take about five years to replace the old look, white with a blue stripe.
Scottsdale: White with a blue stripe.
Tempe: Considering a switch from white with a blue stripe to black and white.