Citizens asked, police delivered. Blue lights are back

Wilmington police has brought the blue cruise lights back “by popular demand.” (Port City Daily/Courtesy Wilmington Police Department)

WILMINGTON –– A well-liked program piloted by Wilmington police earlier this year is back for the foreseeable future.

After receiving substantial positive feedback from the community, the Wilmington Police Department announced Apr. 30 the blue cruise lights would be back on their vehicles.

RELATED: Driving in Wilmington and seeing blue? It’s not just you

While on patrol, officers are now riding around the city or monitoring busy neighborhoods with two unblinking glows on opposite ends of the light bar atop their marked cars, making it easier for those nearby to spot a cop in a crisis. The heightened visibility is also expected to deter criminals from committing illegal acts.

“If you see a Wilmington Police Department vehicle with two steady blue lights on, do not be alarmed,” according to a department news release. “They are on routine patrol.”

More than 4,000 city residents voiced opinions on the program in a three-part survey that opened from late February to early March, after the 30-plus day blue lights trial ended.

The department suggested 94.5% of respondents liked seeing the cruise lights stay on, according to its press release. The questionnaire asked if residents had seen patrol vehicles traveling with their blue cruise lights on during the pilot; if they thought the lights led them to notice WPD cars more frequently; and if they thought the lights helped increase police visibility and would deter crime.

Nearly 98% of surveyees reported noticing increased police presence on the streets during the test run earlier this year.

Department spokesperson Lt. Leslie Irving suggested the lights make little difference to the police, who are already identifiable in marked cars, but the residents do prefer it.

“They see the blue light now, they say, ‘Oh, I see more police officers on the street,’ and ‘I didn’t realize you had that many officers,’” Irving said.

The number of police patrolling varies day to day. On average, 26 patrol officers are on duty at a time across the department’s six districts, Irving said. That does not include members of other divisions, such as the traffic unit, who do not operate marked vehicles.

Patrol police are instructed to keep lights on unless on a special assignment or when presented with another compelling reason to switch them off, such as a traffic stop. When pulling a driver over, or responding to an emergency, law enforcement officers turn on the standard flashing lights and sirens.

The cruise light program will run for the time being, until crime analysts can review data and compare statistics to pre- or post-pandemic levels. For most of 2020, non-violent crime was down, yet homicides were up.

“Everybody’s crime rate across the board was down. Everybody was stuck home,” Irving said. “So we couldn’t compare last year data to this year’s data; it won’t be a fair comparison.”

As the pandemic persists, the community is observing some of the same trends of violence in 2021 as 2020. A shooting at a house party on Kidder Street Apr. 3 left three dead and four wounded.

Last week gunfire erupted at New Hanover County’s Long Leaf Park. No one was hospitalized or killed. There have yet to be any arrests. New Hanover County Sheriff Ed McMahon has pledged to up patrol at county parks and added two deputies to monitor little league games.

With a more noticeable police presence powered by the blue lights, the department is anticipating illegal activity will drop in the city. Plus, as the pandemic subsides, other initiatives intended to improve the public’s perception of the police and reduce crime are starting back up.

The department is rolling its community engagement truck out to various neighborhoods. This Wednesday it will park at the MLK Center. Often officers give out snow cones or popcorn from the vehicle’s window while interacting with the neighbors.

This Saturday night the department is resuming its “teen night,” a 10-year program designed to prevent gang violence by offering youth a safe place to socialize and keep busy on the weekend.

From 7 p.m. to 11 p.m., teens are invited to shoot basketball, eat pizza and play Xbox alongside neighbors and police. The event rotates between two locations, Maides Park and the MLK Center, every other weekend.

“Police are on the courts playing one-on-one, two-on-two,” Irving said. “They get to see us not in uniform . . . they get to see us as human, as men and women.”

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