WILMINGTON — The car is doing 55 in a 45. The driver sees a black-and-white Wilmington police cruiser up ahead and quickly slows to the speed limit. Or straps on a seatbelt when pulling next to a cop car at a stoplight.
We’ve all done it, right?
As much as law-enforcement officials want to catch lawbreakers, a big part of their job is to have enough of a presence in the community that fewer people will break the law in the first place. The idea is, if police are more visible, there’s likely to be less crime — and overall safety will be enhanced.
The WPD is trying a simple new strategy to boost its visibility — when its patrol cars are on the streets, the blue, low-power, non-flashing “cruise” lights will be on at all times. The LED cruise lights are already part of the light bars on the WPD’s newer patrol cars, so there’s no cost.
“We’re always looking for new and different ways to impact our community,” WPD Capt. Rodney Dawson said Friday.
“There are three main goals for this initiative,” Dawson said while talking to reporters in front of a cruiser, a steady, blue glow visible on each side of the rooftop light bar.
Dawson stated visibility as the first and foremost intention. “We want our community to be able to see our officers and know where they’re at,” he said.
Traffic safety and reduction of crime in “certain neighborhoods and business areas” round out other objectives, according to the captain.
“We’ve got mostly positive feedback so far,” Dawson said. “We have had some negative feedback — folks saying, you know, I didn’t know if you were pulling me over. I thought there was maybe a crime going on that I needed to know about.”
Drivers need not react unless the lights are flashing or they hear a siren.
Patrolling with the cruise lights on is not a new idea. From painting cars certain colors to changing the sound of a siren, public safety agencies are always looking to improve their visibility and emergency signaling. LED technology and more-sophisticated light bars have made that easier. Although they are part of the same system that produces the flashing emergency lights that require action from nearby drivers, cruise lights are basically an extension of a police vehicle’s unique paint scheme.
One expert on lighting for public-safety vehicles said that even though most law-enforcement vehicles have cruise lights, they are not widely used.
“They are an underutilized tool that is counter-intuitively powerful for police applications,” said Matthew Ayers, a former police captain in Sevierville, Tenn., who now helps law enforcement and other agencies improve their lighting and other safety and warning signals.
“This low-profile lighting can increase a department’s non-emergency visibility by offering clear identification with a less distracting, less confusing signal,” he said. “Properly used, cruise lights communicate police presence in a way that calms scenes and improves public perception.”
Ayers said he was aware of situations in which people complained they never saw police cars in their neighborhood, even though patrol logs showed that was not the case. When cruise lights were added, the public’s perception of the police presence became more accurate.
Dawson said the practice will be tried for at least 30 days and then evaluated to see if the lights appear to have a positive impact.
As to whether some people might view the beefed-up visibility as intimidating or too aggressive, Dawson said no one had expressed that as a concern, at least so far.
“Overall, the feedback has been positive,” he said. “They thank us for being visible. We’ve always been there. This just helps draw your attention a bit more to us.”
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