front page - editorial archives  - search - community 


Pretty, flashing lights

(Published February 10, 2003)

We now know that Metropolitan Police Chief Charles Ramsey recently traveled to Israel to pick up some security pointers from one of the most terrorist-alert governments in the world.

Lo and behold, the chief learns during his trip that some foreign governments - like Israel's - require police cruisers to routinely drive with rooftop lights flashing, signifying police presence.

So, the chief comes home and decides that a new policy requiring D.C. squad cars to be driven with rooftop red and blue lights flashing at all times is a good way to stop those pesky complaints from citizens who say they never see the police in their neighborhoods.

Unfortunately, somewhere between conception and implementation of this policy, somebody forgot to weigh the pros and cons.

From the average citizen's perspective, the balance decidedly tips against the chief's new policy. And, judging from publicly expressed reaction, this view is shared by many of his officers - some of whom are not following the chief's directive.

There are a number of sound reasons to stop the practice now. Showing off those pretty, flashing lights on patrol cars simply substitutes a stunt for good policing. It doesn't improve any neighborhood's quality of life.

In fact, the policy ignores complaints in some neighborhoods - especially those with entrenched open-air drug markets - that police are too visible, contributing to their inability to help residents drive out crime. One irritated Columbia Heights resident recently observed that the police are now required to tell the hoodlums that they're coming.

The policy backfires in other ways, as well. While residents of the District's safer neighborhoods may experience an increased comfort level in knowing the police are nearby, flashing police lights send an opposite message to tourists and other visitors. To most Americans, the regular presence of police lights is an indication of crime. Do we really want to make visitors feel unsafe in safe neighborhoods?

Visitors will be confused in other ways, too. The new policy ignores that thousands of citizens from all over the country drive to the nation's capital with the almost universal understanding that flashing police lights mean "pull over and stop." Their interpretation of what they see in the District will be that drivers here ignore the law and get away with it.

The policy also creates unnecessary confusion for local drivers.

Many drivers in the District already fail to yield to emergency vehicles, and the new policy will only exacerbate that tendency to ignore approaching emergency lights. While Chief Ramsey notes that police cars add sirens when on an emergency call, ambulance sirens can sometimes be detrimental to the wellbeing of patients on their way to an emergency room. Especially at night, it can be difficult for drivers to see which kind of emergency vehicle is flashing its lights in the distance.

Traffic congestion in the District is enough of a problem without a public relations practice by the police making it worse.

Rescind the new policy, Chief Ramsey. Save the flashing lights for real emergencies.

Copyright 2003, The Common Denominator