Police cars make a U-turn on hue

County slowly trading in white cruisers for a `more professional look' in black

August 10, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

The good guys in the old movie Westerns always wore white, but Howard County's police officers are trading their white patrol cars for black.

They will join several other police agencies opting for cruisers with darker hues.

In recent years, Maryland State Police returned to black- and-olive-green cruisers, and Maryland Transportation Authority Police went to black. Anne Arundel is converting its fleet to cars with dark-blue sides and lighter-blue tops.

"Black gives a more professional look to the patrol cars. It's more identifiable in the region," said James F. Fitzgerald, president of the Howard County Police Association, Local 86.

Still, most area departments - including Baltimore City and Baltimore, Harford, Prince George's and Montgomery counties - are sticking to white vehicles.

Black was the only color available for cars after World War II, but area police cruisers have since used various color schemes - from all black, to black and white, to a gentler powder blue in the 1970s in Howard County and in the early 1990s in Baltimore. Maryland State Police cars went from black and olive to pale yellow in the early '70s, and to a sand color in the early '80s.

In Howard, the roughly two dozen new cars the department gets each year are black, slowly transforming the 218 marked patrol fleet. About one-third of the cars are black now, a department spokesman said.

The gradual change back to a darker cruiser is welcomed by most Howard officers.

"It's very stylish," said Officer Joe Walsh, 27, a three-year patrol veteran who drives a black car.

Sandra E. Copley, 31, a Howard community resource police officer, said the black cars can be helpful, too.

"You don't always want to be seen at night, if you're looking for a smash-and-grab suspect or a burglar," the nine-year veteran said.

The shiny black cars drew raves from some younger critics. They "look tighter," 12-year-old Denier Winfield said, admiring the cruisers lined up at the opening of a new Howard police substation in Columbia's Oakland Mills Village Center last week.

Gary Harris, 13, said that black cars appear "more aggressive" and "they stand out more."

Still, not everyone is happy with the change, including County Executive James N. Robey, a former Howard police chief.

"I told [Police Chief G. Wayne Livesay] I didn't like the black color," said Robey, who said the car is harder to see at night and absorbs more heat in summer.

The county's first patrol car was a black 1951 Ford. Livesay bought a new black Crown Victoria for the department's 50th anniversary three years ago and, after favorable feedback, decided to purchase more as replacements for the white cruisers.

"Part of it is tradition. Our first cars were black cars," Livesay said.

Livesay said white cars were popular because they were less expensive, but he said the black cars are just as cheap these days, though a two-tone, black-gray color scheme he liked would have cost more.

And Robey's objection about summer heat is less important, said police union President Fitzgerald, because the cars have cloth seats instead of vinyl, and better air conditioners.

Black also has a sort of "retro look," said Tom Leasure, fleet sales manager for Miller Brothers Ford in Ellicott City, where Howard's cars were purchased.

But the car dealer and several officers agree that there is one area where black cars lose major style points on the street: They are harder to keep clean.

Black cars look dirty after a rainfall, said patrol Officer Walsh.

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