Police car redesign falls short of 'visibility' goals, critic says

The Ottawa Police Service's (OPS) return to a cruiser with an old-school look aims to make them more visible to the public, but at least one critic thinks the rebranding falls short of that goal.

The dark blue Ford Explorers with white vinyl decals that began patrolling the streets of Ottawa in January will be out in larger numbers come Canada Day, as the force temporarily bolsters the number of both the cruisers and officers in uniform.

About 50 of the new vehicles will be in circulation before the force returns to the 17 that are regularly on patrol.

The vehicles, unveiled earlier this year, are reminiscent of the police squad cars of the early 1930s. At the time, the easiest thing for cities to do to mark a police car was to paint its doors white — white and black being readily available paint colours.

Acting Staff Sgt. Ian Matyas wrote the Ottawa police business case for the cruiser redesign.
Acting Staff Sgt. Ian Matyas wrote the Ottawa police business case for the cruiser redesign. (Patrick Louiseize)

Ottawa police have also touted the cruiser's "reflective decals on all sides to ensure public and officer safety."

Acting Staff Sgt. Ian Matyas, who wrote the business case for the new decals, said studies have shown that it's easier to identify a vehicle painted in this way as belonging to police.

"In the literature, what we saw was that many of the participants that responded to a number of different studies identified this as being more synonymous with policing. And so we wanted something that people would identify with, people would readily see and recognize us as the police," Matyas said.

'A failure of branding'

Though police say the goal of the new squad car is to be highly visible to the public, there are also features meant to cloak the officers' behaviours.

Those include the ability to disable indoor lighting when an officer opens the driver door. The dark blue of the car, which is just shades off the the colour of the Ottawa police uniform, is also supposed to help conceal or blur an officer's movements and precise location around the vehicle.

Kevin O'Donnell is municipal government watcher and son of a retired police officer.
Kevin O'Donnell, a municipal government watcher and son of a retired police officer, calls the new cruisers a 'complete failure of branding.' (Patrick Louiseize)

When the vehicle pulls up behind a driver, depending on the proximity from bumper to bumper, it could be missed entirely that it is a police vehicle, says one Ottawa resident.

Kevin O'Donnell, a city hall watcher concerned with municipal governance, warned police four years ago about what he saw as a troubling trend — exclusively dark cars with muted or greyed paint. Toronto police had painted some of their fleet in dark grey in 2016 and faced almost immediate backlash, with its chief calling it one of his biggest regrets of the year.

O'Donnell, the son of a retired Ottawa police officer, said the new cruisers could be easily mistaken for a non-police SUV.

"The new branding of the police cars, I think it's probably a fantastic design, provided that you're only looking at the police car from a 90-degree angle and you're able to see the conspicuous dark blue on light that says 'police' in big words," he said.

"I think it's a complete failure of branding though, to be highly inconspicuous and very invisible from lots of other angles."

            Ottawa police unveiled a new cruiser look earlier this year.
While the new cruiser is clearly visible as a police vehicle from the side, O'Donnell says it's not so identifiable when viewed from the front or behind. (Patrick Louiseize)

Morale boost for officers

Police point to public polling in 2023 that found citizens wanted a visible police presence in their communities. But communities defined visibility as "proactive enforcement of nuisance crimes, particularly regarding drug and alcohol consumption in public spaces, and patrolling problem locations known for criminal activity."

There was public polling by OPS specifically about the redesign.

One group that was consulted were the police officers themselves.

Seeing a new cruiser for the first time in his career, acting Insp. Scott Pettis, a front-line patrol inspector, called it a "newer, fresher" look to modernize a vehicle that's also a "morale boost" for officers.

That boost comes both from adopting a symbol of traditional policing culture that many officers see as iconic, and from simply being involved in the decision-making.

"Allowing member input always increases morale," said Ottawa Police Association president Matthew Cox, who called the new cruiser "distinctive" among first-responder and special constable vehicles in the city.

Ottawa police block Rideau Street with a cruiser as protesters gather during the Rolling Thunder rally in Ottawa April 29, 2022.
An older white and blue cruiser blocks Rideau Street as protesters gather during the Rolling Thunder rally in Ottawa on April 29, 2022. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

'First priority is the public'

While O'Donnell said he understands efforts to boost morale, he questions the cost at which it comes.

"The first priority is the public, and what does the public need from the police? We need to be able to find them when we need it," he said.

He wants to see efforts to fix morale target root issues such as trauma, mental wellness, staffing and offloading mental health calls onto partners — priorities that were very clearly identified by the public in the 2023 polling that police conducted.

"If the police service isn't sincere about wanting to look after the morale and … the workforce, there are much better avenues than just a new paint job, which also fails to serve the community well," O'Donnell said. "It's a failure."

Toronto police say the new dark grey cruisers differ from their small fleet of unmarked 'stealth' traffic enforcement vehicles because these scout cars are maintaining white reflective decals, making them visible at night.
Toronto police denied their dark grey cruisers were 'stealth vehicles' because they maintained white reflective decals, making them visible at night. (Toronto Police Services)

Beyond the makeover, the vehicles come with new safety features including a full perimeter alert when someone is approaching the vehicle that automatically rolls up any open windows. The cruisers are also equipped with voice commands in both English and French,that can be easily deployed by officers with a push of a button.

The service has about 240 to 250 front-line marked cruisers for patrolling.

OPS expects a full transition of its approximately 250-car patrol fleet to the new cruisers could take up to five years.