Updated Aug. 15, photo added; 4:20 p.m.: Video added.
NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk citizens who object to black police SUVs will have to voice their concerns to the Police Commission.
The Common Council on Tuesday authorized the purchase and “emergency fit up” of 12 Ford pursuit-rated hybrid police SUVs in a 9-3-0 vote, with a note of controversy as opponents objected to the darkness of the vehicles: entirely black with gold lettering, or black with reflective black lettering. Mayor Harry Rilling, former Norwalk Police Chief, said the appearance of the vehicles is the Police Commission’s purview.
“If this body wanted cars that weren’t black, they would have to vote no to give them cars until they are presented with a different color?” Council member Chris Yerinides (D-District A) asked, after 12 minutes of Council discussion.
“You’re here to approve whether you want to get new police cars or not,” Rilling replied. “The money’s been allocated and the police cars need to be ordered. … You don’t usually get involved in the lettering and what the vehicle say and the kinds of lights they’re going to be put on them.”
Council member Michael Corsello (D-At Large) led the opposition.
“Everyone knows that black vehicles are the least safe, because they don’t stand out with the background of roadway and scenery,” Corsello said as the discussion began. “We don’t want our officers in harm’s way or to have our vehicles in greater danger. In addition, I’ve gotten a lot of input from constituents because they do see black vehicles around, and they find that they present somewhat of a menacing image.”
He asked: If the idea is to make police presence known, then why not have highly visible colors?
The department found that black and white police vehicles “do not hold up,” and spent considerable time last year studying options, Deputy Norwalk Police Chief Susan Zecca said. Manufacturers don’t make two-tone police vehicles anymore so the Norwalk Police Department was “wrapping” vehicles in white, and “those white wraps were not holding up and they were looking dingy and dirty and yellowed and just not professional very quickly.”
“We use the gold lettering to stand out so that it so that it is very visible that we’re a police car, and also you have a light bar and a push bar on the front that makes it much more identifiable as a police vehicle,” Zecca said.
It’s police department practice to ride with the light bars on during the darkest hours, Rilling said.
Council member Doug Hempstead (R-District D) mentioned that some police vehicles have black lettering.
Zecca called those “subdued” and said “they’re meant to be canine cars,” because those officers to take the vehicles and the dog home and the car will sit in the officer’s driveway.
They’re barely visible, Hempstead said, with Zecca responding that the letters are reflective.
The police department has switched to SUVs because Crown Victorias are no longer available, and expects to buy 10 a year, Zecca said. Lt. David O’Connor said 25 SUVs have been bought since 2014 and the police department is “sort of doing a little catch up,” because cars have exceeded their operational life.
The cars “are not driven like your family car, they’re driven hard miles, they run constantly, in all kinds of weather. When they’re running, sometimes it’s exposed to driving fast stopping fast. It really beats them up, it takes a lot of their life away,” O’Connor said.
“We’re in a tough position where I think we should be making our vehicles a little more easier for people to see rather than more difficult,” Yerinides said.
“I have not heard of issues where people can’t see us, when needed. And people are noticing us out there and more actively enforcing,” Zecca said.
“I also want to add that these cars should be replaced because it was coming down to the safety of the police officers driving them,” Council member George Tsiranides (D-District D) said.
“Just to be clear, it’s my understanding that lighter color cars are safer cars for those driving them,” Corsello said.
Council member Ernie Dumas (D-District B), Corsello and Yerinides voted against the $407,000 purchase of the Ford Utility Interceptors and their $183,000 fit up.
Afterwards, Dumas said there had been a long discussion about this during Monday’s Democratic caucus meeting and he spoke about an SUV that comes to his neighborhood, that people can’t see it until it’s right upon them.
There are only three or four vehicles out of the 12 that will be that dark, he said.
“The point of it is, it’s bad for the police and it’s bad for the person. Because people don’t know who this guy is jumping out of the car,” Dumas said. “…I haven’t got anything against the police. But those cars…pulling up on folks like this and you can just barely see who it is.”