SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -- As Steve Garcia rumbled slowly down State Street on a recent evening here, he was treated more like a one-man parade than a police officer working a beat.
A little boy looked up from his ice cream cone and sighed, "Awesome!" A carload of people flashed him the thumbs-up sign. Patrons of an open-air bar jumped up and cheered.
The object of admiration wasn't the 14-year veteran of the Santa Barbara Police Department but rather, his fancy wheels.
Sporting a flashy paint job, low-slung tires, mag wheels and chromed engine parts, Garcia's car is not your standard-issue police unit.
Dubbed "the lower-rider cop car" by its admirers, the spiffy vehicle first hit the streets last month as a public-relations move aimed at the teens who cruise State Street, an old Santa Barbara tradition.
But the street-legal cruiser that authorities prefer to call a "customized painted police car" has since rolled into the hearts of even more mature residents.
"That's pretty styling," Don Knauss, a 31-year-old optician, called after the police car as it traveled beside cars packed with teen-agers.
Styling, indeed, the 1986 Chevrolet Malibu that has already seen 86,000 miles in the line of duty now features a $6,000 paint job that was donated by area merchants.
Brilliant blue with sparkling metal flakes and a black lacy pattern, the detailing includes pin striping (gold and green) and two elaborate murals that would be at home on the side of any van.
The hood features an airbrushed image of the Santa Barbara Mission based on an antique photograph. On the trunk is a rendering of "RoboCop," the futuristic robot policeman of movie fame.
Unlike a traditional low-rider, the car does not have a hydraulic suspension system, so it cannot be raised and lowered, or "bounced," in the manner of traditional cruisers. The omission doesn't seem to dampen the effect.
"It shows the public that even the police department has a sense of humor," said Misty Jackson, a 17-year-old Explorer Scout at the Santa Barbara Police Department.
Authorities decided to customize the police car, which was scheduled to be retired, in the wake of last November's killing of a Hispanic man enrolled at Santa Barbara City College.
The investigation led to criticism of the department for a lack of sensitivity to the city's sizable Hispanic community, said Lt. Jim Nalls.