Crime & Courts

Have you seen this new Columbia Police Department car? You haven’t? That’s the point

A new Columbia Police Department cruiser doesn’t have a nickname yet. But, some obvious candidates are the “Ghost Car,” “Phantom Patroller” or “White Rider.”

The car is all-white with department decals that are nearly invisible during the day. Stealth is the intent of the vehicle, the department said.

The decals can assist officers while conducting traffic enforcement in neighborhoods where residents have expressed concerns about speeding, said Jennifer Timmons, a department spokesperson. “The decal can be more difficult to immediately detect during the day.”

The white decals are reflective, like the silver parts of nighttime safety garments. When a light source, such as headlights, hits the flanks of the cruiser, the decals glow. The reflective nature makes the car safer for officers on dark roads and side streets or while conducting DUI and public safety checkpoints, Timmons said.

“The decal can serve varying purposes for officers,” she said. “It provides officers with the ability to better observe the driving behaviors (and) patterns that citizens discuss with CPD that may not otherwise be noted through fully marked enforcement.”

The cruiser will be part of the department’s traffic safety unit. A test vehicle was deployed in January, and the department plans to have three of the cars, two 2019 Dodge Chargers and a 2013 Chevy Caprice, on the road by summer.

Sightline Signs and Graphics in West Columbia applied the inconspicuous design. The company often works with vehicle fleets for a host of entities, including many police, fire and other public safety agencies, according to Andy Wilmoth, the shop manager who did the decal job on the Columbia police car.

The ghostly camouflage is a newer innovation, Wilmoth said. He did his first vehicle with the elusive paint job about three years ago. Columbia police aren’t the only who are using the seen-unseen cars. Sightline Signs and Graphics put together similar decals for Cayce Public Safety Department and University of South Carolina police, Wilmoth said.

“A lot of people didn’t understand to do it that way before,” Wilmoth said.

The “ghost graphics” have been used in the United States and across South Carolina for years. Columbia Police Department is the latest agency to implement it.

SC Police Cruisers, a website and Facebook page, featured Columbia Police Department’s latest addition, calling the decals a “fantastic job.” Dustin Haynes founded the site in 2011 to “showcase every agency in the best manner possible, and share the great community-oriented policing initiatives being used across South Carolina.”

The department might have another incentive to roll out the ghost graphics.

“The agencies also save money on the cost of the decals because they aren’t paying for full color printing,” Haynes said.

When images of the covert vehicle hit local social media, some Columbia residents started giving the car nicknames. One person posting in the Rosewood Neighborhood Facebook group called the police cruiser “a trap.”

“I don’t really like the idea of our law enforcers not being easily identified,” one commenter wrote. “What if I was in a situation where I needed help? I would hate to have to question the car and officer.”

Another commenter, echoing others, said “making a cruiser BARELY identifiable seems to imply that the new ‘paint scheme’ is less about public safety and more about generating revenue through tickets.”

Others said law enforcement needs new tools to better address unsafe drivers.

While the Columbia Police Department said the car is meant to slyly patrol neighborhoods, the underlying purpose isn’t to write more tickets.

“We don’t have a ‘quota’ system,” Timmons said, referring to a practice of officers writing a designated number of traffic tickets per month. “CPD’s Traffic Safety Unit works to reduce roadway violations, including fatal collisions. [It’s] not about issuing a certain amount of tickets during the workday or night.”

Haynes talked up the safety benefits of the graphics, too.

“The motoring public generally change their driving habits when a marked unit is present,” he said. “With ghost graphics, an aggressive driver may not as easily spot the cruiser, which allows the officer to address the violation as it happens.”

Despite the online back-and-forth about Columbia Police Department’s lurk-mobile, when Wilmoth sees the car, he said he has a different reaction — pride.

“I enjoy it,” he said. “Everything we do is pretty much custom. It’s unique to put my name on it and show what I can do.”

David Travis Bland won the South Carolina Press Association’s 2017 Judson Chapman Award for community journalism. As The State’s crime, police and public safety reporter, he strives to inform communities about crimes that affect them and give deeper insight into victims, the accused and law enforcement. He studied history with a focus on the American South at the University of South Carolina.