White car, blue and red stripes, light bar… right?
Members of the Winston-Salem Police Department may not be as easy to spot these days as they once were, as some civilians are finding out. Assistant Chief Alonzo Thompson says some law enforcement vehicles are meant to blend in.
“We do have a number of unmarked cars and they’re not all white Crown Vics,” he said, referring to the Ford Crown Victoria sedans many law enforcement agencies have favored for years. “…Everybody pretty much knows that not too many people drive those Crown Vics anymore. Having the newer modeled vehicles in different color schemes is advantageous to us.”
Chronicle readers have reported seeing Winston-Salem Police in unmarked white, silver and even orange-colored Dodge Chargers, a vehicle specifically used by a DWI team the WSPD operates with the Kernersville Police Department.
Thompson says the unmarked cars are more difficult for motorists to spot, which allows the officers to witness and correct more traffic infractions.
“That’s the reason why we do it, because we can keep the roads safer by having these vehicles nondescript,” he stated. “It ain’t about being sneaky, it’s about being able to take effective measures to ensure safety for motorists and pedestrians.”
While the unmarked vehicles are helpful to the Department, Thompson, a 28-year veteran of the Department, says the WSPD recognizes that the vehicles present their own set of challenges, as some motorists are apprehensive that the unmarked cars might not be legitimate law enforcement.
Mayor Pro Tempore Vivian Burke, chair of the city’s Public Safety Committee, admitted she would be nervous if she were pulled over by an unmarked police car because she has heard stories over the years of people being robbed by criminals posing as law enforcement officers.
“When I’m driving at night, and I see a car behind me, I get a little uncomfortable,” she admitted. “If somebody were to put a light on me driving an unmarked car, I probably would have to get a ticket because I am not going to stop.”
Thompson said reports of “blue light bandits” – as the impersonators are sometimes referred to – have been rare locally in recent years. However, incidents have been reported in Charlotte, Smithville and Durham. Thompson said motorists should not feel obligated to stop in places where they feel unsafe, and that officers don’t mind folks traveling a short distance to a location where they feel comfortable pulling over.
“Put your flashers on,” he advised. “That lets the officer know that you’re aware they’re behind you and you’re going on to a safe place to stop.”
Lt. Tom Peterson oversees the Special Operations Division, which includes the DWI task force, one of the units that favors the unmarked vehicles. The Davidson County native said motorists should trust their judgement when being stopped by an unmarked car.
“If it doesn’t feel right … then you take what extra precautions you need to,” he said. “We not only understand that, we expect that.”
Peterson and Thompson said there are some easy ways to identify a legitimate unmarked vehicle. The vehicles are typically late model American cars, such as Dodge Chargers, Ford Mustangs and Chevrolet Tahoes, and officers operating the vehicles will be dressed in official law enforcement gear, either the traditional navy uniform or a clearly marked gray jumpsuit bearing the department’s insignia. The lights themselves are one of the best ways for motorists to detect a true law enforcement vehicle, Peterson added.
“The key indicators are once the lights are on. It’s hard for anyone desiring to duplicate the light packages,” he said. “ Our unmarked cars have such an extensive light package on them it looks like a Christmas tree by the time you light that thing.”
Those who are still unsure about the legitimacy of a traffic stop can call 911 and inquire wheteher there has been a traffic stop called in by an officer in the area, or request a form of identification from an officer when he or she approaches the window. Legitmate identification badges will include the officer’s name, rank and identification code, Peterson said.
The city is currently phasing in new light packages on marked and unmarked cars that include red lights, because studies have shown they are easier to spot in daylight, and a new blue and white decal package for marked cars to replace the red white and blue design the Department has had for the better part of two decades.
Unmarked cars have 360-degree visibility, meaning a police light is visible from every angle when lit. Peterson, who drives an unmarked vehicle himself, said motorists he apprehends tend to be more surprised than afraid.
“You’ll find the occasional person that is not comfortable,” he said. “But most of the time, I think the reaction is the startled response because they were looking for the marked vehicles.”