See the lights


In most places, po­lice flash their red and blue lights at you when they want you to pull over or to get out of their way.

But in Phil­adelphia, cer­tain po­lice lights will soon sig­ni­fy something com­pletely dif­fer­ent. Ba­sic­ally, they’ll mean noth­ing in par­tic­u­lar.

At Com­mis­sion­er Charles Ram­sey’s dir­ec­tion, the de­part­ment is now modi­fy­ing the light bars that sit atop hun­dreds of its marked patrol cars so that two lights — one red and one blue — will re­main on whenev­er the vehicle is in use.

The lights will be on when the of­ficer is driv­ing around the neigh­bor­hood or stuck in traffic, and even when he’s sit­ting at a corner look­ing for scofflaws or sit­ting in a park­ing lot eat­ing his lunch.

The com­mis­sion­er be­lieves that the lights will in­crease the vis­ib­il­ity and pub­lic ac­cess­ib­il­ity of of­ficers while de­ter­ring overt crim­in­al activ­ity, ac­cord­ing to a de­part­ment spokes­man. But many rank-and-file of­ficers have countered Ram­sey’s en­thu­si­asm with skep­ti­cism, fear­ing that the shin­ing beacons could ac­tu­ally blow their cov­er and aid crim­in­als in the end.

“Al­most every marked vehicle will have the red and blue lights,” said Lt. Ray Evers, the po­lice de­part­ment spokes­man.

The lights are eas­ily dis­tin­guish­able from the ones used by of­ficers in emer­gency situ­ations, ac­cord­ing to the spokes­man. They are dim­mer “aux­il­i­ary” lamps con­figured at the ends of the rooftop light bar. The red one is on the driver’s side and the blue one on the pas­sen­ger’s side. The angled lenses are vis­ible from the front, rear and sides of the car.

Un­like the emer­gency lights, they will not flash or ro­tate. They will re­main stat­ic. There is no “off” switch.

“They’re for vis­ib­il­ity, aware­ness and show­ing folks in the neigh­bor­hood that po­lice are there,” Evers said.

Prob­lem is, of­ficers of­ten don’t want to be seen or re­cog­nized, ac­cord­ing to John McNesby, pres­id­ent of the Fraternal Or­der of Po­lice’s Lodge 5.

“I’m think­ing it could be dan­ger­ous for some of our cops in more act­ive units,” the po­lice uni­on lead­er said.

“If you think [ser­i­ous crooks] will run away be­cause they see a light, you’re sorely mis­taken. We’ve had of­ficers in full uni­form be­ing fired upon get­ting out of their cars.”

One patrol of­ficer who spoke to the Times on con­di­tion of an­onym­ity re­it­er­ated the stealth con­cern. Many times, of­ficers like to “roll up” quietly on in­di­vidu­als or groups sus­pec­ted of crim­in­al activ­ity. That way, the of­ficer has a bet­ter chance of catch­ing the crook red-handed. Lights may com­prom­ise the ele­ment of sur­prise.

Sim­il­arly, the same patrol of­ficer ex­plained, of­ficers of­ten like to sit back in the shad­ows while ob­serving a loc­a­tion. Or they fol­low a sus­pect’s vehicle slowly and un­detec­ted. These tac­tics work es­pe­cially well at night. In either situ­ation, lights may cause law-break­ers to flee and per­haps com­mit crimes else­where.

“We be­lieve vis­ib­il­ity and aware­ness are more im­port­ant,” Evers said. “We have to weigh it out.”

An­oth­er area of con­cern is how mo­tor­ists will re­act to the lights. Ini­tially, ci­vil­ian drivers may be un­fa­mil­i­ar with them and may re­act as if there is a real emer­gency. In time, they might con­tin­ue to pose prob­lems for out-of-town drivers.

“Like any­thing else, after cit­izens get used to see­ing it, they’ll re­cog­nize what it is,” Evers said. “You’ll know [it’s an emer­gency] when the full light bar is on and the aud­ible siren is on.”

Ram­sey launched a sim­il­ar ini­ti­at­ive in 2003 in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., when he was chief of po­lice there. Ac­cord­ing to a Wash­ing­ton Post re­port from Jan. 25 that year, Ram­sey got the idea from a trip to Is­rael. Po­lice in Jer­u­s­alem were us­ing a sim­il­ar vis­ib­il­ity tac­tic.

Ram­sey re­portedly told the Post: “I think we need to do more to be vis­ible. Some­times, we blend in­to the back­ground. People just don’t know you’re there.”

Since ar­riv­ing in Phil­adelphia in Janu­ary 2008, the Chica­go nat­ive con­sist­ently has ad­voc­ated for great­er vis­ib­il­ity from his patrol of­ficers. His re­cent pre­de­cessors of­ten wore ci­vil­ian clothes day-to-day and gen­er­ally traveled in un­marked vehicles. But Ram­sey usu­ally wears his po­lice uni­form to work and drives a marked sport-util­ity vehicle with full po­lice decals and num­ber­ing.

By 2007, shortly after Ram­sey’s de­par­ture from D.C., at least some loc­als there had grown tired of the ex­tra lights.

On one In­ter­net blog, loc­als there com­plained that some of­ficers used white lights, while oth­ers used red and blue, and oth­ers used no aux­il­i­ary lights at all.

Mo­tor­ists de­scribed the lights as dis­tract­ing to them and con­fus­ing to the dis­trict’s many tour­ist vis­it­ors. One driver re­por­ted that he saw a car sideswipe a parked vehicle while swerving to get out of the way of an of­ficer who wasn’t on the way to an emer­gency.

Oth­ers in the blog praised the lights for the heightened sense of se­cur­ity they provide.

As a policy, the po­lice de­part­ment does not dis­close de­ploy­ment levels. Ac­cord­ing to McNesby, whose uni­on has about 6,400 act­ive mem­bers, there may be around 500 vehicles as­signed to the de­part­ment’s 21 patrol dis­tricts.

Not all the patrol cars will be con­ver­ted, however. Those used for tac­tic­al as­sign­ments, like dis­trict-level nar­cot­ics in­vest­ig­a­tions, will not have them, Evers said.

Also, the lights will ap­pear only on cars with new­er-mod­el low-pro­file light bars. Many cars in the dis­tricts have older light bars that do not sup­port the aux­il­i­ary lights, ac­cord­ing to McNesby.

Vehicles will not be taken off the street for modi­fic­a­tion, Evers said. In­stead, the changes will be made whenev­er the cars go in­to the shop for re­pairs or routine main­ten­ance.

McNesby says he been get­ting many in­quir­ies and com­plaints from uni­on mem­bers about the ini­ti­at­ive. Mean­while, he be­lieves that the de­part­ment would be bet­ter off in­vest­ing its ef­forts else­where.

“I think money could be in­ves­ted in much bet­ter places, like build­ings, cars and more cops on the street,” he said. “Some of our build­ing have no heat or air con­di­tion­ing and they have as­bes­tos, but [the ad­min­is­tra­tion] is wor­ried about light bars.” ••


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