Austin, Texas cruises go back to black and white

By Miguel Liscano
The Austin American-Statesman

AUSTIN, Texas Several months ago, when Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo was in town from California , he and his wife were dining downtown and needed a ride back to their hotel. So, they tried to wave down a cab.

But as the white car drove toward them, they noticed that something wasn't quite right.

"As it got closer, I said, 'Holy cow, that's a police car,'" said Acevedo, who was interviewing for the city's top police job at the time.

Austin police soon will switch to a more traditional black and white cruiser to prevent such occurrences. Police say the color scheme is more visible than the white cars with reflective decals they use now, which are often confused with vehicles not used by police.

"By having a black and white color scheme, people know exactly what they're looking at," Acevedo said. "If you're going to commit a crime but you keep seeing black-and-whites in the area " you're going to go somewhere else."

Around Austin, Capital Metro and the city also use white Ford Crown Victorias , officials said. The Police Department's first batch of 108 two-tone Ford Crown Victoria Interceptors, which cost about $24,000 each, are expected to arrive by the end of the year, Lt. Craig Cannon said. The rest of the city's about 300 marked police cruisers, he said, will be replaced over the next three years.

The recommendation to switch color schemes came from the department's uniform and equipment committee at least a year ago months before Acevedo got here but the idea was left on the table, said Cannon, who is co-chairman of the committee. Acevedo approved the recommendation when he became chief.

Black and white police cars became prominent across the nation in the 1950s, as departments tried to distinguish their vehicles from civilian cars, said Travis Yates , a police captain in Tulsa, Okla., who operates the Web site policedriving.com.

And people still link black and white to police cruisers, he said.

"Just like a firetruck is red, police cars are black and white," Yates said.

It's unclear whether the Austin Police Department has ever used black and white police cars. Cannon said he didn't know. The Police Department's fleet manager, Karen Bitzer, didn't either.

Hays County Sheriff Allen Bridges , who worked for the Austin Police Department from 1972 to 1997, said he has a picture from the 1940s of an Austin police cruiser that looks black and white. Then again, he said, "the picture is black and white."

And shortly before Leroy Opiela , now a lieutenant with the Hays County sheriff's office, joined the Austin Police Department in 1969, officers drove cruisers in several colors with no lights on the roof, he said. " Whatever color came off the showroom floor," Opiela said.

He rode around in a white cruiser as a rookie, and the department switched to blue and white cars the next year, he said.

The department changed to white cruisers with reflective decals in 1992 in an effort to make them more noticeable, Cannon said.

But around the turn of the millennium, Cannon said, departments across the country realized that there is a plethora of white cars on the streets, and they decided their cruisers were not distinctive enough.

So, departments started going back to black and white, Cannon said. "It's much easier to identify who's who," he said.

A little more than 10 years ago, senior patrol officer Joe Muñoz was in his patrol car at Sixth and Trinity streets just after dark when he heard a knock behind him.

"Somebody started banging on my back door, telling me to take them to some hotel," Muñoz said. "I rolled down my window and said, 'Excuse me,' and the guy was surprised it was a police car."

After the incident, Muñoz said, he'd frequently hang his left arm outside his window so people would notice his police patch.

Copyright 2007 Austin American-Statesman

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