OKLAHOMA CITY – Police chiefs across the state said they oppose a lawmaker’s plan to ban municipalities from using unmarked vehicles to conduct traffic stops.
The use of vehicles that don’t have distinctive external placards or stickers or that use subdued markings are critical to stopping child abductions, armed robbery suspects, and drug smuggling. They also help reduce accidents, excess speeding, and deter road rage, police chiefs said.
Don Sweger, Guthrie Police Chief, said the use of unmarked cars is a “vital tool,” and while people may be on their best behavior when a marked unit is present, the counter argument is that people behave better overall when they cannot be sure an officer is nearby.
“Laws are made so that people know and can follow the rules at all times, not just when a police vehicle is in your rearview,” Sweger said.
State Sen. Cody Rogers, R-Tulsa, said he intends that the provisions of Senate Bill 1109 be targeted at city police departments that have designated traffic divisions with unmarked units such as Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Edmond and Norman. He said the aim is that departments wouldn’t be able to use unmarked cars on a routine basis, but could use them in special circumstances, such as DUI enforcement or if a police car breaks down.
However, the current wording in the bill encompasses all municipalities. It states that “it shall be unlawful for any municipal police department to use any vehicle which is not clearly marked as a law enforcement vehicle for traffic enforcement.”
It also requires all graphics or markings on law enforcement vehicles to be in contrasting colors to a vehicle, and notes that the change is in response to an increased number of persons impersonating law enforcement officers using unmarked cars.
“What we should be doing is public safety, not hide and seek,” Rogers said. “That’s the problem I have. I don’t understand why we have unmarked police cars sitting out trying to issue tickets instead of doing public safety and slowing people down.”
Rogers said the bill reverts state law back to pre-2005, when municipalities didn’t have the authority to use unmarked vehicles. He also said he believes that excessive speeding and reckless driving have increased in Tulsa since cities were allowed to start using unmarked vehicles.
“I don’t think that the process that we’re using now is working,” Rogers said. “I think we’ve got to move on and look for something different.”
He said people tend to pay more attention and have better driving habits when marked police cars are present. He’s also concerned that unmarked vehicles are being used for revenue generation as opposed to public safety.
Rogers said a constituent asked him to run the bill, and as word has spread, Rogers said he’s received countless calls and emails supporting him.
“The only pushback I get is from municipalities, police departments,” he said.
Tecumseh Police Chief J.R. Kidney, who is a member of the Oklahoma Association of Chiefs of Police, said he serves on the group’s legislative committee and based on the feedback they’ve received, it appears the group may oppose it. His department doesn’t have unmarked patrol cars doing traffic enforcement, but he said he sees a definite need for them for drug enforcement and in areas where there are a lot of accidents and speeders.
“A lot of times these unmarked cars get in there and enforce those speed zones, and really make a difference in slowing traffic down and easing up on some of the accidents,” Kidney said.
He said state statute already requires that officers operating from an unmarked patrol car be in an identifiable uniform.
Kidney also said if Rogers or his constituents are getting stopped by these vehicles, they can simply check the uniform to make sure an officer is in compliance with Oklahoma state statutes or ask to see an officer’s commission card.
K.D. Rowell, Chickasha police chief, said she’s opposed to the idea as proposed, but is hopeful there is some common ground if the law is truly necessary.
She said her department has a couple of vehicles that have “ghost graphics,” but said they’re definitely not “a ticket-revenue town.” She said the benefit of using subdued graphics is that they’re not as easy to spot when following up on calls such as domestic violence incidents.
“Most people when you see a Charger, everybody starts looking to see, ‘Is it police?' But if it’s got the subdued graphic on it, it’s not screaming police right out there,” Rowell said. “I find that it’s a lot more useful tool for us whenever we’re answering calls for service.”
She said anybody using a vehicle with subdued graphics has lights in the windshield, in the grill and back window and must be wearing a uniform. She said while officers use the vehicles for everyday patrol and aren’t sitting there running traffic, they do also use them for traffic enforcement purposes.
An Oklahoma City Police Department spokesman said they had no comment on the proposed legislation, but said they rely on unmarked vehicles for things like traffic enforcement and drug interdiction. Each unit has lights, sirens and a uniformed officer at the wheel.
Norman police no longer have a traffic enforcement division, said Robert Wasoski, president of the Norman Fraternal Order of Police and retired police officer.
He said that when he worked for Norman, he did work in the traffic unit for several years. He drove a black and white that was marked, but didn’t have an overhead light bar on it. Wasoski said he probably averaged about 18 to 19 citations a day and made other stops that didn’t result in a ticket.
“Sometimes an unmarked unit is good at catching people who are not paying attention,” he said, adding that while tickets do generate revenue that was not the goal of Norman’s unit.
“When I worked, it was to address areas that were of concern to the public and to change driving behavior and reduce violations that were hazardous,” Wasoski said.
He said he’s not heard any uptick in the number of people who are impersonating police officers either in Norman or statewide.
“If anything, it’s getting harder and harder to get people to apply to be police,” Wasoski said. “I don’t know why they would want to impersonate one given today’s social climate and all that stuff. I would think that would probably be more hazardous.”
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at email@example.com.