Police car

Police car

A police car is the description for a vehicle used by police, to assist with their duties in patrolling and responding to incidents. Typical uses of a police car include transportation for officers to reach the scene of an incident quickly, to transport criminal suspects, or to patrol an area, while providing a high visibility deterrent to crime. Some police cars are specially adapted for work on busy roads.

The first police car was a wagon run by electricity fielded on the streets of Akron, Ohio in 1899. The first operator of the police patrol wagon was Akron Police officer Louis Mueller, Sr. It could reach 16 miles per hour and travel 30 miles before its battery needed to be recharged. The car was built by city mechanical engineer Frank Loomis. The $2,400 vehicle was equipped with electric lights, gongs and a stretcher. The car's first assignment was to pick up an intoxicated man at Main and Exchange streets.

Commonly known names to describe police cars are (police) cruiser, squad car, panda car, area car and patrol car. Depending on the configuration of the emergency lights, a police car may also be called a marked unit. In some places a police car may also be informally known as a cop car, a black and white, a cherry top, or a jam sandwich.


In some areas of the world, the police car has become more widely used than police officers "walking the beat". This is because there has been a shift in the focus of policing away from high visibility with "an officer on every street corner" to more focused services, sending officers out in response to incidents, and also allowing patrols to cover a much greater area in less time.

Advocates of community policing often cite this shift in to vehicles, and away from face to face contact, as a reason for breakdowns in relations with the community. As such, these organizations often ask police departments to encourage constables to spend less time in their vehicles and more time walking the streets and interacting with the community. This has led to some countries and forces, such as those in the United Kingdom, introducing more walking patrols, using either fully sworn Police Officers or Police Community Support Officers.

Functional types

There are several types of police car.

  1. Patrol car - The car used to replace walking for the 'beat' police officer. Their primary function is to convey normal police officers between their duties (such as taking statements or visiting witnesses). Patrol cars are also able to respond to emergencies, and as such would most likely be fitted with visual and audible warnings.
  2. Response car - A response car is similar to a patrol car, but is likely to be of a higher specification, capable of faster speeds and will certainly be fitted with audible and visual warnings. These cars are usually only used to respond to emergency incidents, so are designed to travel fast, and may carry specialist equipment, such as large firearms.In the UK each station has only usually have one, which is called an Area Car. on
  3. Traffic car - Also known as Road Policing Units, these cars are designed for the job of enforcing traffic laws, and as such usually have the highest performance of any of the police vehicles, as they must be capable of catching most other vehicles on the road. They may be fitted with special bumpers designed to force vehicles off the road, and may have visual and audible warnings, with special audible warnings which can be heard from a greater distance. In some police forces, the term "traffic car" may refer to cars specifically equipped for traffic control in addition to enforcing traffic laws. As such, these cars may differ only slightly from a patrol car, including having radar and laser speed detection equipment, traffic cones and flares, and traffic control signs.
  4. Multi purpose car - Some police forces do not distinguish between patrol, response and traffic cars, and may use one vehicle to fulfill some or all roles even though in some cases this may not be appropriate (such as a police city vehicle in a motorway high speed pursuit chase). These cars are usually a compromise between the different functions with elements added or removed.
  5. Community liaison car - This is a standard production car, visibly marked, but without audible and visual warning devices. It is used by community police officers to show a presence, and to transport them between jobs. These cars do not respond to emergencies.
  6. Unmarked car - Many forces also operate unmarked cars, in any of the roles shown above, but most frequently in traffic and as response cars for detectives. They have the advantage of not being immediately recognisable, and are a valuable tool in catching criminals while the crime is still taking place. In some areas, unmarked cars may be known as slick top cars (which normally have marking but no light bar), ghost cars, stealth units, or, in CB slang, a "plain brown wrapper." An observant person however is often able to identify unmarked police cars. (if they know what to look for)
  7. Dog unit Car (K9) - This type of car is used to transport police dogs. In some jurisdictions, this will be a station wagon or car based van, due to the installation of cages to carry the dogs.
  8. Surveillance car - Forces may operate surveillance cars. These cars can be marked or unmarked, and are there to gather evidence of any criminal offence. Overt marked cars may have CCTV cameras mounted on the roof to discourage wrongdoing, whereas unmarked cars would have them hidden inside. This type of vehicle is particularly common in the United Kingdom.
  9. High visibility decoy car - Some police forces use vehicles (or sometimes fake 'cut outs' of vehicles) to deter crime. They may be old vehicles retired from use, stock models restyled as police cars, or a metal sign made to look like a police car. They are placed in areas thought to be susceptible to crime in order to provide a high visibility presence without committing an officer. Examples of these can be seen on many main roads, freeways and motorways. In 2005, Virginia's (United States) legislature considered a bill which stated, in part: "Whenever any law-enforcement vehicle is permanently taken out of service... such vehicle shall be placed at a conspicuous location within a highway median in order to deter violations of motor vehicle laws at that location. Such vehicles shall... be rotated from one location to another as needed to maintain their deterrent effect.
  10. Bait car - Police forces may operate cars used to trap criminals who are stealing cars (by carjacking, breaking in or other means). The car is taken to a place where it is known to be at risk of theft, and allowed to be stolen. The police then track the vehicle, and can disable the engine and lock the doors by remote control. The same technique can be used to place portable items of value such as GPS units with an inbuilt tracker.
  11. Rescue unit - In some jurisdictions, the police may operate a rescue service, and special units will be required for this.
  12. Demonstration cars - cars which are not for active duty, but simply for display. These are often high performance or modified cars, sometimes seized from criminals, used to try to get across specific messages (such as with the D.A.R.E. program), or to help break down barriers with certain groups (such as using a car with modified 'jumping' suspension as a talking point with young people).


Police cars are usually passenger car models which are upgraded to the specifications required by the purchasing force. Several vehicle manufacturers, such as Ford and General Motors, provide a "police package" option, which is built to police specifications in the factory. Police forces may add to these modifications by adding their own equipment and making their own modifications after purchasing a vehicle.

Modifications a police car might undergo include adjustments for higher durability, speed, high mileage driving and long periods of idling at a higher temperature. This is usually accomplished by heavy duty suspension, brakes, calibrated speedometer, tires, alternator, transmission and cooling systems, and also sometimes includes slight modifications to the car's stock engine or the installation of a more powerful engine than would be standard in that model. It is also usual to upgrade the capacity of the electrical system of the car to accommodate the use of additional electronic equipment.

Audible and visual warnings

Police vehicles are often fitted with audible and visual warning systems to alert other motorists of their approach or position on the road. In many countries, use of the audible and visual warnings affords the officer a degree of exemption from road traffic laws (such as the right to exceed speed limits, or to treat red stop lights as give way) and may also suggest a duty on other motorists to move out of the direction of passage of the police car or face possible prosecution.

Visual warnings on a police car can be of two types — either passive or active.

Passive visual warnings

Passive visual warnings are the markings on the vehicle. Police vehicle markings usually make use of bright colours or strong contrast with the base colour of the vehicle. Modern police vehicles in some countries have retroreflective markings which reflect light for better visibility at night. Other police vehicles may only have painted on or non-reflective markings. Most marked police vehicles in the United Kingdom and Sweden have reflective Battenburg markings on the sides, which are large blue and yellow rectangles. These markings are designed to have high contrast and be highly visible on the road, to deter crime and improve safety.

Police vehicle marking schemes usually include the word "Police" or similar phrase (such as "State Trooper" or "Highway Patrol") or the force's crest. Some police forces use unmarked vehicles, which do not have any passive visual warnings at all.

Active visual warnings

The active visual warnings are usually in the form of flashing coloured lights (also known as 'beacons' or 'lightbars'). These flash in order to attract the attention of other road users as the police car approaches, or to provide warning to motorists approaching a stopped vehicle in a dangerous position on the road. Common colours for police warning beacons are blue and red, however this often varies by force. Several types of flashing lights are used, such as rotating beacons, halogen lights, or light emitting diode strobes. Some police forces also use arrow sticks to direct traffic, or message display boards to provide short messages or instructions to motorists. The headlights of some vehicles can be made to flash, or small strobe lights can be fitted in the headlight, tail light and indicator lights of the vehicle.

Audible warnings

In addition to visual warnings, most police cars are also fitted with audible warnings, sometimes known as sirens, which can alert people and vehicles to the presence of an emergency vehicle before they can be seen. The first audible warnings were mechanical bells, mounted to either the front or roof of the car. A later development was the rotating air siren, which made noise when air moved past it. Most modern vehicles are now fitted with electronic sirens, which can produce a range of different noises. Police driving training often includes the use of different noises depending on traffic conditions and manoeuvre being performed. For instance, on a clear road, approaching a junction, the 'wail' setting may be used, which gives a long up and down variation, with an unbroken tone, whereas, in heavy slow traffic, a 'yelp' setting may be preferred, which is a sped up version of the 'wail'. Some vehicles may also be fitted with airhorn audible warnings.

A development is the use of the RDS system of car radios, whereby the vehicle can be fitted with a short range FM transmitter, set to RDS code 31, which interrupts the radio of all cars within range, in the manner of a traffic broadcast, but in such a way that the user of the receiving radio is unable to opt out of the message (as with traffic broadcasts). This feature is built into all RDS radios for use in national emergency broadcast systems, but short range units on emergency vehicles can prove an effective means of alerting traffic to their presence, although is not able to alert pedestrians and non-RDS radio users.

Police-specific equipment

Police officers additional equipment may include:

  • Two way radio - One of the most important pieces of equipment in modern law enforcement, and strongly linked with the development of the police car. Many forces have moved from traditional UHF/VHF sets, which can be monitored externally, to more secure systems, such as those working on a GSM system, such as TETRA
  • Equipment Consoles - Are used to house two way radios, light and siren switches. Some may be equipped with locking compartments for safe storage of firearms, file compartments and cup holders.
  • Suspect transport enclosures - These are dividers which ensure that a rear seat passenger (a suspect) is unable to attack the driver or passenger. These may be simple bars or grilles, although they can include bullet proof glass.
  • Firearm lockers - In certain countries some police vehicles are equipped with lockers in which to store firearms. These are usually tactical firearms such as shotguns or patrol rifles, which would not normally be carried on the person of the officer.
  • Mobile data terminal - Many police cars are fitted with Mobile Data Terminals (or MDTs), which are connected via wireless methods to the police central computer, and enable the officer to call up information such as vehicle licence details, offender records, and incident logs.
  • Vehicle tracking system - Some police vehicles, especially traffic units, may be fitted with equipment which will alert the officers to the presence nearby of a stolen vehicle fitted with a special transponder, and guide them towards it, using GPS or simpler radio triangulation
  • Evidence gathering CCTV - Police vehicles can be fitted with video cameras used to record activity either inside or outside the car. They may also be fitted with sound recording facilities. This can then later be used in a court to prove or disprove witness statements, or act as evidence in itself (such as evidence of a traffic violation)
  • Automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) - This computerised system uses cameras to observe the number plates of all vehicles passing or being passed by the police car, and alerts the driver or user to any cars which are on a 'watch list' as being stolen, used in crime, or having not paid vehicle duty.
  • Speed recognition device - Some police cars are fitted with devices to measure the speed of vehicles being followed, such as ProViDa, usually through a system of following the vehicle between two points a set distance apart. This is separate to any radar gun device which is likely to be handheld, and not attached to the vehicle.
  • Remote rear door locking - This enables officers in the front to remotely control the rear locks — usually used in conjunction with a transport enclosure.
  • Push Bumper (aka Nudge Bars) - Fitted to the chassis of the car and located to augment the front bumper, to allow the car to be used as a battering ram, or to push other vehicles off the road.
  • Runlock - This allows the vehicle's engine to be left running without the keys being in the ignition. This enables adequate power, without battery drain, to be supplied to the vehicle's equipment at the scene of a major incident. The vehicle can only be driven off after re-inserting the keys. If the keys are not re-inserted, the engine will switch off if the handbrake is disengaged or the footbrake is activated.

Use by country

Police cars in popular culture

Police chases have been dramatized in television programs and movies, and occasionally feature in television news coverage of unusual circumstances, showing footage from an airborne camera.

In film and television fiction, police cars are usually portrayed as containing a team of two police officers so that they may converse and interact on screen. In reality, most districts have only one police officer per vehicle, although at night this may increase to two.


See also


Other types of emergency vehicles


External links

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