Police car

Police car
Two Peel Regional Police police cars near Mississauga, Canada
A police car in Washington, D.C.

A police car is a ground vehicle used by police, to assist with their duties in patrolling and responding to incidents. Typical uses of a police car include transportation for officers to reach the scene of an incident quickly, to transport criminal suspects, or to patrol an area, while providing a high visibility deterrent to crime. Some police cars are specially adapted for certain locations (e.g. work on busy roads) or for certain operations (e.g. to transport police dogs or bomb squads).

The first police car was a wagon run by electricity fielded on the streets of Akron, Ohio in 1899. The first operator of the police patrol wagon was Akron Police officer Louis Mueller, Sr. It could reach 16 mph (26 km/h) and travel 30 mi (48 km) before its battery needed to be recharged.[1] The car was built by city mechanical engineer Frank Loomis. The $2,400 vehicle was equipped with electric lights, gongs and a stretcher. The car's first assignment was to pick up a drunken man at the junction of Main and Exchange streets.[2]

Terms for police cars include (police) cruiser, squad car, area car and patrol car. In some places a police car may also be informally known as a cop car, a black and white, a cherry top, a gumball machine, a jam sandwich or panda car. Depending on the configuration of the emergency lights, and livery, a police car may be considered a marked or unmarked unit.



In some areas of the world, the police car has become more widely used than police officers "walking the beat". This is because there has been a shift in the focus of policing away from high visibility with "an officer on every street corner" to more focused services,[citation needed] sending officers out in response to incidents, and also allowing patrols to cover a much greater area in less time. Placing officers in vehicles also allows them to carry more equipment, such as automated external defibrillators for people in cardiac arrest or road cones for traffic obstructions, and allows for more immediate transport of suspects to holding facilities. Vehicles also allow for the transport of larger numbers of personnel, such as a SWAT team.

Advocates[attribution needed] of community policing often cite this shift into vehicles, and away from face to face contact, as a reason for breakdowns in relations with the community. As such, these organizations often ask police departments to encourage officers to spend less time in their vehicles and more time walking the streets and interacting with the community. This has led to some countries and forces, such as those in the United Kingdom, introducing more walking patrols, using either fully sworn Police Officers or Police Community Support Officers.

Functional types

There are several types of police car, including:

Smart Fortwo patrol car in Prague
Alfa Romeo response car in Bari, Italy
Dog Unit car in New South Wales
Speed camera unit in the Northern Territory of Australia
Land Rover police car used as an Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit in Hong Kong
Diplomatic Protection Group armed response unit in London
Patrol car
The car used to replace walking for the 'beat' police officer.[3] Their primary function is to convey normal police officers between their duties (such as taking statements or visiting witnesses). Patrol cars are also able to respond to emergencies,[4] and as such would most likely be fitted with visual and audible warnings. In Hong Kong the car is actually a van.
Response car
A response car is similar to a patrol car, but is likely to be of a higher specification, capable of faster speeds, and will certainly be fitted with audible and visual warnings. These cars are usually only used to respond to emergency incidents, so are designed to travel fast, and may carry specialist equipment, such as large firearms. In the UK, each station usually only has one, which is called an area car.[5][6][7]
Traffic car
Also known as Road Policing Units, these cars are designed for the job of enforcing traffic laws, and as such usually have the highest performance of any of the police vehicles, as they must be capable of catching most other vehicles on the road. They may be fitted with special bumpers designed to force vehicles off the road, and may have visual and audible warnings, with special audible warnings which can be heard from a greater distance. In some police forces, the term traffic car may refer to cars specifically equipped for traffic control in addition to enforcing traffic laws. As such, these cars may differ only slightly from a patrol car, including having radar and laser speed detection equipment, traffic cones and flares, and traffic control signs.
Multi-purpose car
Some police forces do not distinguish between patrol, response and traffic cars, and may use one vehicle to fulfill some or all roles even though in some cases this may not be appropriate (such as a police city vehicle in a motorway high speed pursuit chase). These cars are usually a compromise between the different functions with elements added or removed.
Sport Utility Vehicles (SUV), and Pickup Trucks
SUVs and Pickups are used for a variety of reasons; off-road needs, applications where a lot of equipment must be carried, K-9 units, etc.
Community liaison car
This is a standard production car, visibly marked, but without audible and visual warning devices. It is used by community police officers to show a presence, and to transport them between jobs. These cars do not respond to emergencies.[8][9]
Unmarked car
Many forces also operate unmarked cars, in any of the roles shown above, but most frequently in traffic and as response cars for detectives. They have the advantage of not being immediately recognisable, and are a valuable tool in catching criminals while the crime is still taking place.[10] In some areas, unmarked cars may be known as slick top cars (which normally have marking but no light bar), ghost cars, stealth units, plain clothes cars or, in CB slang, a "plain brown wrapper". An observant person, however, is often able to identify unmarked police cars (if they know what to look for). In the United States, unmarked cars are also used by federal law enforcement agencies such as the FBI and the Secret Service, but can be recognized by their U.S. government plates. However, not all unmarked police cars have government license plates. Many U.S. jurisdictions use regular civilian issued license plates on unmarked cars. Especially gang, vice, and SWAT units.
Dog unit Car (K9)
This type of car is used to transport police dogs. In some jurisdictions, this will be a station wagon or car based van, due to the installation of cages to carry the dogs.[11]
Surveillance car
Forces may operate surveillance cars. These cars can be marked or unmarked, and are there to gather evidence of any criminal offence. Overt marked cars may have CCTV cameras mounted on the roof to discourage wrongdoing, whereas unmarked cars would have them hidden inside. This type of vehicle is particularly common in the United Kingdom.
High visibility decoy car
Some police forces use vehicles (or sometimes fake 'cut outs' of vehicles) to deter crime. They may be old vehicles retired from use, stock models restyled as police cars, or a metal sign made to look like a police car. They are placed in areas thought to be susceptible to crime in order to provide a high visibility presence without committing an officer. Examples of these can be seen on many main roads, freeways and motorways. In 2005, Virginia's (United States) legislature considered a bill which stated, in part: "Whenever any law-enforcement vehicle is permanently taken out of service ... such vehicle shall be placed at a conspicuous location within a highway median in order to deter violations of motor vehicle laws at that location. Such vehicles shall ... be rotated from one location to another as needed to maintain their deterrent effect.";[12] Such cars may also be used in conjunction with manned units hidden further down the road to trick speeders into speeding back up again, and being clocked by the manned car. In Chicago, Illinois a small fleet of highly visible vans are parked alongside major state and federal routes with automated speed detection and camera equipment, monitoring both for speeders and other offenders by license plate. Tickets are then mailed to the offenders or, in case of other crimes related to the licensed owner, may be served by a manned vehicle further down the road.
Bait car
Police forces may operate cars used to trap criminals who are stealing cars (by carjacking, breaking in or other means). The car is taken to a place where it is known to be at risk of theft, and allowed to be stolen. The police then track the vehicle, and can disable the engine and lock the doors by remote control. The same technique can be used to place portable items of value such as GPS units with an inbuilt tracker.[clarification needed]
Rescue unit
In some jurisdictions, the police may operate a rescue service, and special units will be required for this.
Explosive ordinance disposal
In jurisdictions where the police are responsible for, or participate in, explosive ordinance disposal squads (bomb squads), dedicated vehicles transport the squads' crews and equipment.
Demonstration cars
Cars which are not for active duty, but simply for display. These are often high performance or modified cars, sometimes seized from criminals, used to try to get across specific messages (such as with the D.A.R.E. program), or to help break down barriers with certain groups (such as using a car with modified 'jumping' suspension as a talking point with young people).


The police car on the left is fitted with a lightbar, making it instantly recognisable as a police vehicle. The one on the right does not have a lightbar, making it less obvious, particularly when seen from the front (e.g. in a driver's rear-view mirror)

Police cars are usually passenger car models which are upgraded to the specifications required by the purchasing force. Several vehicle manufacturers, such as Ford, General Motors and Dodge, provide a "police package" option, which is built to police specifications in the factory. Police forces may add to these modifications by adding their own equipment and making their own modifications after purchasing a vehicle.

Mechanical modifications

Modifications a police car might undergo include adjustments for higher durability, speed, high mileage driving and long periods of idling at a higher temperature. This is usually accomplished by heavy duty suspension, brakes, calibrated speedometer, tires, alternator, transmission and cooling systems, and also sometimes includes slight modifications to the car's stock engine or the installation of a more powerful engine than would be standard in that model. It is also usual to upgrade the capacity of the electrical system of the car to accommodate the use of additional electronic equipment.

Safety equipment

Police vehicles are often outfitted with AED's (Automated external defibrillator), first aid kits, fire extinguishers, flares, life buoys, barrier tapes, etc.

Audible and visual warnings

Police vehicles are often fitted with audible and visual warning systems to alert other motorists of their approach or position on the road. In many countries, use of the audible and visual warnings affords the officer a degree of exemption from road traffic laws (such as the right to exceed speed limits, or to treat red stop lights as a yield sign) and may also suggest a duty on other motorists to move out of the direction of passage of the police car or face possible prosecution.

Visual warnings on a police car can be of two types: either passive or active.

Passive visual warnings

Passive visual warnings are the markings on the vehicle. Police vehicle markings usually make use of bright colours or strong contrast with the base colour of the vehicle. Modern police vehicles in some countries have retroreflective markings which reflect light for better visibility at night. Other police vehicles may only have painted on or non-reflective markings. Most marked police vehicles in the United Kingdom and Sweden have reflective Battenburg markings on the sides, which are large blue and yellow rectangles.[13] These markings are designed to have high contrast and be highly visible on the road, to deter crime and improve safety. Another passive visual warning of police vehicles is simply the interceptor's silhouette. This is easily observed in the United States, where the ubiquitous nature of the Ford Crown Victoria in police fleets has made the model synonymous with police vehicles.

Police vehicle marking schemes usually include the word Police or similar phrase (such as State Trooper or Highway Patrol) or the force's crest. Some police forces use unmarked vehicles, which do not have any passive visual warnings at all.

Active visual warnings

Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor with emergency lights activated

The active visual warnings are usually in the form of flashing colored lights (also known as 'beacons' or 'lightbars'). These flash in order to attract the attention of other road users as the police car approaches, or to provide warning to motorists approaching a stopped vehicle in a dangerous position on the road. Common colours for police warning beacons are blue and red, however this often varies by force. Several types of flashing lights are used, such as rotating beacons, halogen lights, or light emitting diode strobes. Some police forces also use arrow sticks to direct traffic, or message display boards to provide short messages or instructions to motorists. The headlights of some vehicles can be made to flash, or small strobe lights can be fitted in the headlight, tail light and indicator lights of the vehicle.

Audible warnings

In addition to visual warnings, most police cars are also fitted with audible warnings, sometimes known as sirens, which can alert people and vehicles to the presence of an emergency vehicle before they can be seen. The first audible warnings were mechanical bells, mounted to either the front or roof of the car. A later development was the rotating air siren, which made noise when air moved past it. Most modern vehicles are now fitted with electronic sirens, which can produce a range of different noises. Police driving training often includes the use of different noises depending on traffic conditions and manoeuvre being performed. In North America for instance, on a clear road, approaching a junction, the 'wail' setting may be used, which gives a long up and down variation, with an unbroken tone, whereas, in heavy slow traffic, a 'yelp' setting may be preferred, which is a sped up version of the 'wail'. Some vehicles may also be fitted with airhorn audible warnings. Also in some European countries, where a hi-lo two tone siren is the only permitted siren for emergency vehicles, a "stadt" siren will be used in cities where it has loud echo that can be heard from blocks away to warn the traffic an emergency vehicle is coming, or a "land" siren will be used on highways to project its noise to the front to produce more penetration into the vehicles ahead to alert the drivers.

A development is the use of the RDS system of car radios, whereby the vehicle can be fitted with a short range FM transmitter, set to RDS code 31, which interrupts the radio of all cars within range, in the manner of a traffic broadcast, but in such a way that the user of the receiving radio is unable to opt out of the message (as with traffic broadcasts). This feature is built into all RDS radios for use in national emergency broadcast systems, but short range units on emergency vehicles can prove an effective means of alerting traffic to their presence, although is not able to alert pedestrians, non-RDS radio users, or drivers with their radios turned off.

A new technology has been developed and is slowly becoming more popular with police. Called the Rumbler, it is a siren that emits a low frequency sound which can be felt. Motorists that may have loud music playing in their car, for example, may not hear the audible siren of a police car behind them, but will feel the vibrations of the Rumbler. The feeling is that of standing next to a large speaker with pumped bass.[14]

Police-specific equipment

Two-way radio, mobile data terminal, navigation and audible/visual warning control unit
Police vehicle with emergency warning lights and an LED message board in Canberra, Australia

Police officers additional equipment may include:

Two-way radio
One of the most important pieces of equipment in modern law enforcement, and strongly linked with the development of the police car.[citation needed] Many forces have moved from traditional UHF/VHF sets, which can be monitored externally, to more secure systems, such as those working on a GSM system, such as TETRA.
Equipment Consoles
These are used to house two way radios, light and siren switches. Some may be equipped with locking compartments for safe storage of firearms or file compartments.
Suspect transport enclosures
These are steel and plastic barriers which ensure that a suspect - who has been frisked, disarmed, handcuffed and seat belted, is unable to attack the driver or passenger and unable to tamper with equipment in the front seat. These may be simple bars or grilles, although they can include highly impact resistant but not bullet resistant glass. Many use expanded steel instead of plastic glazing for the upper half of the partition.
Firearm lockers
In certain countries, including the United States, some police vehicles are equipped with lockers or locking racks in which to store firearms. These are usually tactical firearms such as shotguns or patrol rifles, which would not normally be carried on the person of the officer.
Mobile data terminal
Many police cars are fitted with mobile data terminals (or MDTs), which are connected via wireless methods to the police central computer, and enable the officer to call up information such as vehicle licence details, offender records, and incident logs.
Vehicle tracking system
Some police vehicles, especially traffic units, may be fitted with equipment which will alert the officers to the presence nearby of a stolen vehicle fitted with a special transponder, and guide them towards it, using GPS or simpler radio triangulation
Evidence gathering CCTV
Police vehicles can be fitted with video cameras used to record activity either inside or outside the car. They may also be fitted with sound recording facilities. This can then later be used in a court to prove or disprove witness statements, or act as evidence in itself (such as evidence of a traffic violation)
Automatic number plate recognition (ANPR)
This computerised system uses cameras to observe the number plates of all vehicles passing or being passed by the police car, and alerts the driver or user to any cars which are on a 'watch list' as being stolen, used in crime, or having not paid vehicle duty.
Speed recognition device
Some police cars are fitted with devices to measure the speed of vehicles being followed, such as ProViDa, usually through a system of following the vehicle between two points a set distance apart. This is separate to any radar gun device which is likely to be handheld, and not attached to the vehicle.
Remote rear door locking
This enables officers in the front to remotely control the rear locks — usually used in conjunction with a transport enclosure.
PIT Bumper
The Pursuit Intervention Technique (PIT) bumper attaches to the front frame of a patrol car. It is designed to end vehicle pursuits by spinning the fleeing vehicle with a nudge to the rear quarter panel.
Push Bumper (aka Nudge Bars)
Fitted to the chassis of the car and located to augment the front bumper, to allow the car to be used as a battering ram, or to push other vehicles off the road.
This allows the vehicle's engine to be left running without the keys being in the ignition. This enables adequate power, without battery drain, to be supplied to the vehicle's equipment at the scene of a major incident. The vehicle can only be driven off after re-inserting the keys. If the keys are not re-inserted, the engine will switch off if the handbrake is disengaged or the footbrake is activated.[15]

Use by country

Police cars in popular culture

Police chases have been dramatized in television programs and movies, and occasionally feature in television news coverage of unusual circumstances, showing footage from an airborne camera.

In film and television fiction, police cars are usually portrayed as containing a team of two police officers so that they may converse and interact on screen. In reality, most districts have only one police officer per vehicle, although at night this may increase to two.

See also


Other types of emergency vehicles



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  2. ^ "The Police Wagon", Akron Beacon Journal, 1999-06-20
  3. ^ Critchley, TA (1967). A History of Police in England and Wales. Constable and Company. 
  4. ^ Sampson, Fraser (2006). Blackstone's Police Manual Volume 4: General Police Duties. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-928522-5. 
  5. ^ Goh, J (May 2006). "SPF's new fleet hits the road". Police Life Monthly 32. 
  6. ^ "New police car is first in the UK". Wiltshire Police. Archived from the original on 2007-09-27. http://web.archive.org/web/20070927075729/http://www.wiltshire.police.uk/news/newsview.asp?id=501. Retrieved 2007-07-29. 
  7. ^ "Met Police Driving Courses Explanation". Metropolitan Police. http://www.met.police.uk/mpds/courses.htm. Retrieved 2007-07-29. 
  8. ^ "Car dealer and fun park boost for police". Archived from the original on 2007-09-27. http://web.archive.org/web/20070927231952/http://www.staffordshire.police.uk/news552.htm. Retrieved 2007-07-29. 
  9. ^ "Jazzy new patrol cars for Surrey police". Car Pages. http://www.carpages.co.uk/honda/honda_jazz_police_car_27_09_03.asp. Retrieved 2007-07-29. 
  10. ^ "Unmarked Road Policing Vehicles". Sussex Police. http://www.sussex.police.uk/infocentre/content.asp?uid=475. Retrieved 2007-07-29. 
  11. ^ "Surrey Police Dog Unit". http://www.ukemergency.co.uk/police/dscd0704.jpg. 
  12. ^ "Bill Tracking - 2005 session > Legislation". Leg1.state.va.us. 2005-01-12. http://leg1.state.va.us/cgi-bin/legp504.exe?051+ful+HB2608. Retrieved 2009-06-09. 
  13. ^ "Home Office | Scientific Development Branch | Police vehicle marking". Scienceandresearch.homeoffice.gov.uk. http://scienceandresearch.homeoffice.gov.uk/hosdb/police-equipment-technology/road-policing/police-vehicle-marking/. Retrieved 2009-06-09. 
  14. ^ Washington Post With New Device, Police Shake, Rattle and Roll
  15. ^ June 02, 2007 (2007-06-02). "YouTube - Hampshire Police Open Day - BMW X5 Runlock System Explained". Youtube.com. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mWHlOidJ0uo. Retrieved 2009-06-09. 

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

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