November 29th, 2002

A Badge, a Gun -- and a Great Deal on Vinyl Siding

Roanoke (VA) Times & World News

Imagine your favorite TV police show. "NYPD Blue," let’s say.

Then imagine an episode in which patrol cars race up to a hostage situation.
As blue-suited officers spring into action, the camera pans across the reassuring
slogan on their car doors, something like "To Serve and Protect."

Gunshots ring out. Officers dive for cover. One of them, a graduate of the
T.J. Hooker school of television police acting, slides dramatically across the
hood of his car. And as he does, another slogan emerges:

"Manuel’s Mexican Road House - Best Tacos in Town."

You’d change the channel, wouldn’t you, because real cops wouldn’t drive cruisers
like that, would they?

Alas, some do.

A company called Government Acquisitions has persuaded about 20 police departments
to accept patrol cars for a nominal fee in exchange for the right to advertise
on the cars. The police are able to augment strained budgets, and the advertisers
get eye-catching display space, so these are win-win deals, right?

Well, except for the official endorsement implied by an ad’s presence on a
police car. And the likelihood that ad money will undercut tax support. (Considering
the Virginia General Assembly’s mind-set, it’s only a matter of time before
it sees this as a politically painless way to reduce public funding.) And, worst
of all, the potential for undermining the respect, authority and unbiased image
that the police need.

Government Acquisitions gives police some control over which ads appear. And
certain businesses - gun dealers, for instance - are barred outright. But that
leaves a lengthy lineup of embarrassing but likely advertisers such as lawyers
("Hugo Free: the attorney you need to protect your rights"), bail
bondsmen ("Riley’s Bonds: opening jail doors wide for 16 years") and
- dare we say it? - doughnut shops.

This is the kind of idea Barney Fife must have had in mind when he said, "Nip
it in the bud."

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