Critics quickly expressed frustration that these performative actions circumvent meaningful change and show support for the same communities that are over-politicized and under-protected. But this criticism overlooks how most police reforms work primarily as PR projects. Larger cities devote a remarkable number of staff and a portion of their budget to public relations, targeting the general public, politicians who control their budgets, and perceived criminals. While the specific goals of their PR projects shift with each audience, the overall message has been consistent throughout the history of American policing: police authority is legitimate, effective, and absolute.
Law enforcement technologies are particularly useful props for reformers to communicate police authority. In the 2020s, that means a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. on the side of a patrol vehicle in response to accusations of systemic racism undermining police legitimacy. At other times, the police have used their vehicles to communicate other values such as efficiency, overwhelming force or responsiveness.
In the 19th century, the police were notoriously corrupt and ineffective. As historian Mark Haller writes, “because they walked their beats with minimal supervision,” early patrolmen spent much of their time in saloons and barbershops, both to connect them to their neighborhoods and provide ample opportunity for corruption. Around the turn of the century, progressive reformers—Teddy Roosevelt among the most famous—sought to professionalize departments with new technologies, training, and standards.
August Vollmer, the famous “father of modern policing” put his entire Berkeley department in Ford Model Ts in 1913 and claimed that motorized patrolmen were a “quite different type of officer” from the “heavy, lumbering foot patrolmen of the past.” For Vollmer and the countless police reformers he would later influence, police cars were not value-neutral tools, but harbingers of modern – and thus legitimate and authoritative – police departments. That argument was crucial in convincing municipalities to spend money on police cars and convincing the public that police departments had changed in a fundamental way.
Departments also quickly realized that they could use police vehicles to communicate other messages to the public. While early vehicles had few distinguishing marks, in the 1930s officials began painting their cars some “conspicuous colors”, arguing that this “greatly increases their morale effect.” A report published for the International Association of Chiefs of Police in 1933 noted that in one state citizens believed that the number of officers on patrol “had doubled … after cars had been painted white.” The idea was that by creating a sense that officers were omnipresent, they could deter crime and disorder in urban areas.
Police departments also relied on the speed of their new cars to help project power and deter crime. In 1928, the Atlanta Constitution reported the patently false claim that radio-equipped police cruisers made 400 arrests in an average time of less than 60 seconds each year. As media studies scholar Kathleen Battles argues in “Calling All Cars,” police reformers—both police chiefs and academics in burgeoning criminal justice programs—helped shape radio docudramas during this period. They deliberately crafted narratives to communicate police professionalism and superhuman responsiveness. Reformers sought to make escape from these technologies seem impossible, communicating a sense of safety to the public and helplessness to would-be criminals.
Police reformers also made use of particular vehicles to promote their messages and entrench police power. In the early 1930s, the Michigan State Police took their Lincoln “built especially to aid in the war on gangsters” on a national tour. Communicating overwhelming force in response to a rise in organized crime during Prohibition, this “gigantic flying arsenal” featured multiple radio systems, sirens, searchlights, a Thompson machine gun, grenade launchers, hand grenades, multiple rifles, flares and more. In 1936, the Milwaukee Police Department introduced its “Autofort,” a “HUGE armored patrol car” so heavy it blew out its own tires. If the era’s most notorious criminal, Al Capone, could drive around in a bulletproof 1928 Cadillac, the police would build bigger and more powerful cars to maintain their authority.
In 1950, Ford began selling police packs, cars with features specifically designed for law enforcement. Quickly followed by General Motors, both marketed “lightning responsiveness,” comfort, and engines that, as one Chevy commercial put it, sounded like “the voice of authority.” At this time, community members were more likely to encounter an officer behind the wheel than to go to bat, except in the densest urban areas. They also got used to “calling the police” and an expectation that the police would respond relatively quickly. Police cars both symbolized and enabled the police response.
In the 1970s, however, something strange happened: Police departments suddenly began emphasizing foot patrols and turning to patrol cars, once the hallmark of modern police.
Renewed calls for expansive changes in the police came in the late 1960s, highlighted by the 1968 report of the Kerner Commission, appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson to explain the black riots that occurred during his administration. These riots expressed outrage that the modernization of the police had brought more, not less, harm to minority communities. The recipe for a new generation of reformers: fix social relations.
In 1968, a sociologist concluded that “From the front seat of a moving patrol car, street life in a typical Negro ghetto is perceived as an uninterrupted sequence of suspicious scenes.” That was the basic logic behind George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson’s 1982 “broken windows theory,” which called for a return to the days when police officers patrolled their beats on foot.
The patrol car, which once represented police modernization and professionalism, now appeared to be damaging community relations. Of course, police cars didn’t disappear—but reformers now argued that community relations would improve if police left their cars to walk around and better immerse themselves in the neighborhood.
The purpose of this reform was not to change policing, but rather to frame a particular police technology—the patrol car—in a way that explained a past problem and presented a future solution that affirmed police legitimacy. However, the entire narrative was based on a romanticized vision of what foot patrol looked like before police cars, along with an overly deterministic explanation of how the cars had corrupted an institution with flaws that ran far deeper than any technology.
This period marked the beginning of mass incarceration, as the US prison population increased from 500,000 to about 2,000,000 between 1980 and today. Even with the reformist emphasis on foot patrol, police cars remained a core law enforcement technology. They shrunk a bit in the 1980s, partly in response to oil prices, but then proliferated and switched to large SUVs as standard equipment, ballooned with new computer technologies, riot gear and emergency equipment.
A standard police vehicle manufactured in the last decade is not only technologically advanced, it is conspicuously designed to showcase the modern power of the police.
The NYPD’s preliminary 2023 design for its patrol cars is a good example. Featuring a green stripe in reference to the NYPD flag and the department’s historic green patrol cars in service until the 1970s, the cruisers promise a “new look outside and a more comfortable feel inside—this potential new design for our fleet includes input from our members while representing the traditions of the police department.”
But each headline buried the most important change to the patrol cars: a 360-degree camera mounted on each one that “could constantly monitor streets.”
We cannot properly criticize police materials and technologies until we understand their relationship to police reform as a form of public relations. Painting police SUVs with King quotes may be tone-deaf and frustrating, but the more important critique is to see these efforts in a long history of police reformers using technologies as props to project authority and undermine public criticism.