November 6th, 2002

To Protect and to Sell

Toledo Blade

In a society in which commercial exploitation is rampant, it was just a matter
of time until someone offered to provide free police cruisers on condition that
they be emblazoned with advertisements for, well, you name it.

Personal-injury lawyers? Bail bondsmen? Radar detectors? The local doughnut
shop?

Despite whatever arguments can be mustered in favor of surrendering the last
vestiges of public dignity in the interest of saving a buck, this is one issue
on which a line needs to be drawn very firmly and succinctly.

No police department, no matter how under-funded, should provide rolling billboards
for any commercial concern. Put another way, local governments should not handcuff
their public safety forces to such humiliating hucksterism, however pressing
their financial problems.

A Charlotte, N.C., business, Government Acquisitions, LLC, claims to be "working
with 250 towns, cities, and counties all across the United States" to provide
"sponsored" police vehicles for $1 each. News reports indicate that
some communities already have been reeled in on this Faustian bargain. Well,
shame on them for showing such poor judgment.

In addition to the obvious ridicule to which police would be subjected, there
are serious practical reasons for ensuring that safety vehicles are unmarked
except for official logos, numbers, and flashing lights.

Imagine looking in your rearview mirror some dark night and seeing a pursuing
vehicle that looks like a police car - but has those familiar golden arches
on the hood. Would you be inclined to stop? Should the officer driving that
cruiser have to deal with a motorist’s newfound fear that he’s being pulled
over by a police imposter?

The answer to both questions is no. Police vehicles must be instantly identifiable
to any member of the public, from children who might need help to adults who
have violated a traffic law.

Another valid concern is conflict of interest - whether police might be expected
to go easy on a local business with an ad on their car.

In sum, advertising on police cars would reduce the moral authority of those
we depend on to enforce laws impartially and to keep us reasonably safe from
crime.

At a time when a new police cruiser costs upwards of $30,000, the temptation
for cash-poor local governments to succumb to advertising’s lure might be great.
But getting something for nothing is a fool’s dream, and we must remind ourselves
that there really is no free lunch.

Schools, for example, have raised money by selling soft drink bottlers the
right to put their machines in the school hallways. Can it be any surprise that
children are more obese or have more cavities than ever?

Let NASCAR plaster ads all over its race cars - and for that matter, all over
its drivers. Ads on police cars are fodder for comics, not thoughtful public
policy.

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