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State your case: Should law enforcement agencies use unmarked vehicles for traffic enforcement?

Despite fewer cars on the road due to COVID-related shutdowns, the national trend has been higher incidents of speeding and fatalities

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One of the unexpected consequences of the COVID-19 lockdowns that occurred during the initial months of the coronavirus pandemic was an increase in speeding violations. With usually busy freeways and streets near empty, drivers seemed to forget all the rules of the road. Law enforcement agencies frequently shared on social media photos of tickets issued for speeds in excess of 100 mph. Despite a 13% reduction in the number of miles traveled in 2020, traffic deaths grew by about 7% to 38,680 making it the deadliest year on highways since 2007, according to NHTSA estimates.

Even as the country has opened up again, aggressive driving has continued. The South Carolina Department of Public Safety (SCDPS) recently announced the creation of new specialized Area Coordinated Enforcement (ACE) Teams teams to help curb this trend. The teams feature a mix of marked and unmarked police cars, including the newest additions to the Highway Patrol’s fleet of a group of unmarked, striped Dodge Chargers.

“During the past year, South Carolina has followed national trends of increased highway collisions, injuries, and fatalities,” SCDPS Director Robert Woods, IV said. “We also have seen a disturbing increase in aggressive driving behaviors, including speeds of over 100 mph, tailgating, drunken or drugged driving and road rage – all of which are unacceptable.”

Are unmarked police cars the best approach to the problem of aggressive driving? Read our columnists’ take on this topic and share your thoughts in the box below.

The ground rules: As in an actual debate, the pro and con sides are assigned randomly as an exercise in critical thinking and analyzing problems from different perspectives.

Our debaters: Jim Dudley, a 32-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department where he retired as deputy chief of the Patrol Bureau, and Chief Joel Shults, EdD, who retired as chief of police in Colorado.

Jim Dudley: The South Carolina Department of Public Safety has announced the creation of new specialized teams using unmarked, striped Dodge Chargers to help curb increasing trends of aggressive driving.

Despite the COVID-related effects of fewer cars on the road, the national trend has been higher incidents of traffic collisions, sideshows, speeding and fatalities. Traffic-related fatalities are often the primary or secondary cause of deaths of law enforcement officers every year.

Over the past year, while driving in my personal vehicle, I’ve witnessed cars zoom past on the freeways going well over 100 miles per hour. I immediately check the rearview mirror looking for our heroes in blue (or khaki) in pursuit. I’m often disappointed with no light bars in sight.

In my home state of California, as in other states, using unmarked cars for traffic enforcement is prohibited, but I think it’s high time we took back control of the roads. Using unmarked cruisers or “ghost marked” radio cars is a great idea.

Joel Shults: Every hunter knows about camouflage to sneak up on their prey but does the violator-seeking traffic cop need to blend in with the crowd? The answer may not be simply the question of whether unmarked cars are effective compared to the preventive value of a marked car.

Stealth can be important, but public confidence, absent solid data showing unmarked enforcement saves lives, is especially important in the current season of fear and skepticism.

The age-old problem of police impersonators is another concern that must not be ignored.

Many might be surprised that this issue is the subject of many states’ laws, such as the California prohibition. Laws vary, but some allow unmarked cars for routine traffic stops if the driver is in full uniform or there is a uniformed officer present. Some limit unmarked cars for patrol during daylight hours only. Many allow low profile markings such as inside-mounted emergency lighting (which, I believe, is the best compromise in this argument since speeders are watching for that light bar) or subdued emblems.

The fact that the issue is addressed by law in many states points to the controversy that has existed especially since the inception of state police agencies in the late 1920s. We all know that ending up in pursuit in an unmarked car is unthinkable (at least to chiefs and risk managers), so why catch what you can’t reel in?

Jim Dudley: I understand your points, Joel. But, things are pretty awful on the road and the sideshow behavior shows just how “Mad Max” the situation is becoming.

Studies have shown that random saturation enforcement operations keep offenders off balance and looking over their shoulders over mere constant presence. If drivers thought twice about flying by that car ahead of them, mission accomplished.

A driver’s license is a privilege, not a right, and on the road, there is no expectation of privacy. Clearly, a segment of the mobile population has not been able to self-regulate. Drivers who do follow the rules of the road needn’t worry. Agencies may build allies and supporters who see the egregious offenders removed from the road.

To your point that the units may be seen as invasive, unmarked traffic units should be used wisely, for serious violations, rather than for minor offenses such as equipment violations and turn signals.

Joel Shults: There’s certainly no argument here about the importance of traffic safety enforcement, but I have yet to find a study that validates the relationship between using unmarked police cars for traffic enforcement and either increased compliance or decreased crashes. Absent a well-established link between unmarked enforcement and positive outcomes, the decision comes down to our philosophy of enforcement.

Is “fairness” an element in the eyes of a public we are reluctant to necessarily offend? Does compliance with traffic law caused by fear of apprehension really increase with unmarked enforcement? Should the public be advised of the strategy with signs like the ones used to warn “enforcement by aircraft”? Should the public be specially educated on how to respond to being stopped by an unmarked vehicle to avoid impersonators victimizing motorists? Do unmarked cars lose their value for other traffic operations like accident investigations? Do unmarked cars pose an extra hazard to officers on car stops with reduced rear warning lighting?

The easiest answer to all these questions is simply to keep marked cars in service and leave stealth to the detectives.

Jim Dudley: Good points Joel. And “yes” to most of your questions. Certainly, we do post signs that say “unmarked traffic enforcement in use” just as we tell motorists that aircraft are monitoring, that red light cameras are present and radar is enforcing speed laws. Most agencies already tell the public when and where DUI operations will be in use, and still, arrests are made.

The devil is in the details. A well-thought policy should address which violations are priorities of the operations, when and where to use unmarked vehicles, and an accompanying media campaign.

To answer your previous question about capturing fleeing offenders, plans should be prepared in advance detailing the best geographic areas to use strategies involving choke points, boxing in and spike strips. It is time to stop the worst offenders rather than shrug our shoulders and allow the heinous behavior to fester.

Joel Shults: I think the key is getting data on both the effectiveness of covert traffic operations and on public opinion. In an era of demands for transparency, we need to know if unmarked cars enforcing non-violent offenses meet the test for openness or build a wall of resentment. Meanwhile, buckle up!

NEXT: 1,000 cops address non-compliance during traffic stops

Should unmarked police cars be used for traffic enforcement? Police1 readers respond

  • People can argue this all day, but in reality, with most traffic stops, the first time the offender sees the police car is in their rearview mirror. All they see are the lights and the grille of the police car. My agency has unmarked, internal lights, pseudo-marked (lightbars and front license plate with unit #), and fully marked. When any of the cars approach from behind to pull you over, all you really see is full-width emergency lighting on a car, perhaps with a siren activated. Where does marked or unmarked come into play? If I have to pull up next to you, I am not doing it for identification, I am boxing you in, executing a PIT maneuver (sort of), or passing you. Either way seeing my billboard advertisement is a moot point. I should not be next to you if I’m stopping you. More of a concern is inadequate lighting, one or two head dash lights, etc.

  • If you operate your vehicle within the confines of the law, you shouldn’t have to worry about this entire topic.

  • We use unmarked vehicles in Virginia. I am currently assigned to an unmarked 2011 Interceptor Utility as a Lt. over the patrol division for our Sheriff’s Office. I have had a Caprice and Charger before this, both unmarked. The lighting needs to be very visible though.

  • The use of unmarked vehicles is more of a cat and mouse game. I feel you need to use only in certain situations. I feel that LE vehicles should be required to have some type of marker on at all times. I feel it would be a deterrent, safety marker (LE instead of hiding in the center in pitch black), and help citizens to be able to visibly see officers at a distance.

  • I think the use of unmarked units within a patrol division is beneficial for traffic enforcement, as well as accident investigations. As long as the officer is in uniform, the vehicle is equipped the same as a regular fleet unit (camera, radar, MDC, etc.), and when conducting stops a marked patrol unit assists as SOP, it eliminates any excuse the motorists may think of.

  • I see both sides of the argument but I think for units assigned to the traffic bureau specifically, they all should be marked units that increase visibility and deterrence, coupled with aggressive targeted enforcement, which will reinforce the behavioral change in the population when they know the community will not tolerate reckless driving behavior. When it comes to traffic enforcement, I believe high visibility and deterrence are better than stealthy enforcement after the fact.

    Unmarked units working a uniform detail such as traffic or targeted abatement issues should be allowed but focused on specific needs. We have had unmarked units working specific intersections where people run stop signs and many pedestrians were struck but the actual stops were made by marked traffic units so as to minimize confusion and increase confidence that it was the real cop and not an impostor. The unmarked units had uniformed officers inside as well in case they need to present themselves.

    If unmarked units have to be used for traffic enforcement, I would front load the community just like SCDPS with PSAs and outreach so the community is aware that there will be unmarked units conducting traffic enforcement so they have more confidence in the legitimacy of a stop and what to do if they wish to ask for marked units or how to call dispatch to verify it. This has a secondary effect of putting the fear and uncertainty into traffic violators that they won’t know where the cop is and that has a deterrent effect of its own.

  • I feel that unmarked cars should be used to enforce traffic laws. A marked car may slow traffic down for a short time, but as soon as it is out of sight the speeding, reckless driving behavior starts up again. An unmarked car on the side of the road with a stopped vehicle that just flew past about 20 cars is a lesson that sticks with people, they will think before they speed away out in front of everybody else. Any car behind them may be an unmarked police cruiser. I owned a Camaro Z28 some years ago. At the time the county had several Z28 Camaros (unmarked) and different colors that patrolled the major county roads. When I was driving to work on the county parkway, cars would speed up to my left and drop back as soon as they saw my car, even though my car was just personal transportation. They were not going to take a chance on acting a fool. The unmarked cars became a deterrent in themselves.

  • “To recognize always that the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, and not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.” – Sir Robert Peel. Behaviors are changed by knowing police are around and are prepared to enforce the law. After a while, that becomes a habit behavior, not an enforced behavior.

  • I am a firm believer of law enforcement’s use of unmarked vehicles for traffic enforcement! It comes down to driver integrity, if they are doing the right thing all the time then it does not matter if there are marked or unmarked cars. So many drivers go right back to breaking the law as soon as a marked unit is out of sight. I believe people’s disregard for traffic laws can be curbed by increasing unmarked traffic enforcement units!

  • As a woman alone, I would not attempt to evade a stop by an unmarked vehicle, but I would definitely not stop in an unpopulated or rural area. I would not ask any of my family members to stop for an unmarked vehicle. I would however advise them to slow down and drive to a well-lit, highly visible area or wait for a marked unit to arrive before stopping or exiting the vehicle. In my years as a police officer in a large metropolitan area, people often failed to recognize an unmarked unit as an emergency vehicle and failed to yield right of way. This practice would further endanger the safety of the traffic enforcement unit.

  • This can be quite effective. It is important to consider those who are not cops trying to copy this method for criminal intentions. In short, how will the public know the real police vehicle from the fake vehicle? The Chattanooga Police Department uses subdued police markings. I like this method and the public cannot tell that this appearing unmarked police vehicle is official until they look at it directly from a certain spot. A “well done” for CPD. It is important to be creative when criminals threaten the safety of the community.

  • A mix of both is important, but you can’t undervalue the importance of unmarked police vehicles for traffic enforcement. Unmarked police vehicles, should have a well-endowed hidden light package to avoid confusion from the public and to provide safety for the officer. The idea is to catch people when they think they aren’t being watched. When people see a marked police vehicle, they drive better. This is called the halo effect. So, what are drivers doing when they don’t see a police vehicle? Everyone has had that experience of cruising down the highway, seeing a marked car in the center median, checking your speedometer, tapping the brake, passing the car at or near the speed limit, and then resuming your speed once the police car is out of sight. It elicits a temporary change in behavior. There are countless psychology studies on this. Just think back to school, and how the behavior of the class changed when the teacher stepped out of the room. When police want to catch drug dealers, they use covert methods to observe the illegal behavior. It works very well. If you believe in only marked cars for traffic enforcement, then your rationale should carry over to all fields of investigation. A marked car on the corner would surely stop a drug dealer from operating on the street, but would it convince them to give up their life of crime? Of course not. They would just put on their halo, and wait until the police car was gone.

  • Have not heard one compelling argument for NOT using unmarked cars. Yes, of course, use them to supplement the marked vehicles. The answer to this question seems to align with the premise of: is the point of policing to get citizens to obey the laws only when they feel there’s an immediate police presence or all the time?

  • Law enforcement vehicles should IDEALLY be a mix of “uniform-looking” marked vehicles PLUS an assortment of non-marked “random-looking” vehicles in various makes and models.

  • Unmarked vehicles should be used for traffic enforcement. It’s the element of surprise for the bad guy. Most will obey when there is a marked unit, but unmarked you see all sorts of reckless driving and behavior. As a state trooper in Alabama, I used to have a semi-marked Dodge charger and let me tell you, I would write 20 to 30 tickets in a shift starting at 15 over the limit.

  • In Massachusetts where I grew up, you saw unmarked units pulling people over all day! You never knew where they were. Traffic fatalities, pedestrians and bicyclist fatalities are some of the lowest, yet it’s a populous state. I have lived in South Florida for the past nine years and see no enforcement or unmarked units and drivers average 90 mph weaving in and out and tailgating as there’s no deterrent! Fatalities, road rage and reckless driving are out of control. A driver’s license is considered a right here whereas in Massachusetts you are taught it is a privilege. So yes, unmarked units should be out there with zero tolerance. We shouldn’t allow the chaos of today’s entitled society to dictate this country’s safety on the road.

  • Marked cars only! We want compliance with traffic laws and a clear police presence usually achieves that. I don’t see the point of unmarked cars unless fines are the objective. Unmarked should be for detectives and special units. We want to catch drivers who are so unaware that they don’t see us – they’re unsafe. There are enough bad drivers out there to keep us busy. Also, the lights on the top are seen better than the ones in the car. And there is a valid argument that people won’t cooperate when they think the cop is an impersonator.

  • It is my opinion that if citizens knew the police were patrolling the streets, but that these patrols were being done in unmarked vehicles, then it would be reasonable to think that more compliance to traffic laws would result. If the traffic units could be on any street at any time unseen then common sense would say drivers should be more aware of possibly getting stopped at any time and by any vehicle they pass. I also see the unmarked vehicles, in general, helping to put a stop to the increase in police being ambushed while in the marked units. Officer safety should be first with the agencies across the country, but unfortunately, this is not the case many times. As a retired officer, I believe a combination of both marked and unmarked police cars increases the effectiveness of traffic enforcement.

  • As traffic fatalities outnumber gun violence deaths effective traffic enforcement will save lives. Unmarked can be useful for observation and responses.

  • Absolutely not. Marked only. The whole point is to keep the roads safe. People drive better when they see a police car.
  • Marked units only. Too many impersonators in unmarked vehicles.
  • I say go to license plate recognition both stationary and mobile. This will only target the vehicle in question leaving all other “offender” data out. After a nice collection of speeding tickets, the vehicle will not be eligible for renewed registration, then it could be impounded. Anyone driving that at the time could be identified and cited personally. Having a mobile unmarked license plate reader patrol vehicle would definitely slow down the crowds. Having a few chase vehicles ahead on the route could be used for gross negligent violations. I would volunteer to drive up and down my state’s highways with an LPR vehicle all day long. I would guess that after one day of automated citation issuing, the program would have paid my salary for the month.
  • In the time I was a police officer, I wrote many more citations with a fully marked vehicle than I ever did with an unmarked car. In many situations, depending on the traffic situation at the place you have stopped the offender, it’s much safer with a fully marked car. I would also point out that the natural reaction of almost all motorists is to lift the foot of the gas pedal when seeing a fully marked police vehicle. I don’t feel our main purpose is writing citations, but rather preventing bad driving by our presence.
  • Too many people rely on the visible presence of LEOs or marked vehicles to determine if an area is “safe” to be in. Criminals also use the absence of a visible police presence as a sign they are free to victimize others since there is no one around to stop them. While I am a strong proponent of marked, uniformed and highly visible patrol activities to build public trust and for crime prevention purposes, I firmly believe that low profile and/or unmarked vehicles have a place in both traffic enforcement, as well as general patrol activities. Since the criminals do not wear uniforms or other indicators of their intent to break the law, I do not think LEOs should be restricted to only full uniform and marked vehicles when performing their duties.
  • I believe a mix of marked and unmarked vehicles can be a deterrent to violators. Any tool that gives law enforcement an advantage should be used.
  • As a law enforcement officer in Ohio, I deal with a great deal of frustration being required to enforce traffic in a marked patrol unit. I can’t even begin to count the number of serious violations I observe in my personal car on my way to work. Every time I think to myself how valuable an unmarked unit would be. Fortunately, our agency allows me to black out, but during daylight hours when traffic is heavy, this offers no advantage. I would like to see our legislators adapt to our current times, addressing the issues presented by a younger generation on our roadways. They need accountability, but it’s difficult to provide this much-needed element with a neon strobe marking you! Let’s also not forget the social media element. People are constantly sharing your location on Google and Waze when they see you. This would be more difficult without markings. I rest my case.

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