In February, the Miami Police Department unveiled a redesigned police SUV in honor of Black History Month. The Ford Interceptor featured raised fists, an outline of Africa, red, green and yellow stripes and the message “Miami Police Supports Black History Month.” Miami wasn’t the only department to refashion its police cars. Other police departments in Columbus and Durham have made similar efforts, as have departments in places like Liverpool and Ontario.
Critics quickly voiced frustration that these performative acts sidestep meaningful change, displaying support for the same communities that are over-policed and underprotected. But this critique overlooks how most police reforms function primarily as public relations projects. Major cities devote a remarkable number of staff and proportion of their budget to PR, targeting the general public, policymakers who control their budgets and perceived criminals. While the specific objectives of their PR projects shift with each audience, the overall message has been consistent across the history of U.S. policing: the authority of the police is legitimate, effective and absolute.
Law enforcement technologies are especially 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 that undermine police legitimacy. At other times, police have used their vehicles to communicate other values like efficiency, overwhelming power or responsiveness.
In the 19th century, the police were notoriously corrupt and ineffective. As historian Mark Haller writes, “because they walked their beats with only minimal supervision,” early patrolmen spent much of their time in saloons and barbershops, both connecting them to their neighborhoods and providing 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 contended that motorized patrolmen were an “altogether different type of official” 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 essential for convincing municipalities to spend money on police automobiles and persuading the public that police departments had changed in a fundamental way.