Most citizens know a law enforcement vehicle when they see one. A swirl of red and blue lights from above, along with the agency clearly displayed on the vehicle tell drivers when an officer is near.
Over the last few years, law enforcement agencies across the country have introduced “ghost cars” to their fleets. They aren't unmarked vehicles but are less easy to spot because of subdued graphics and the placement of lights.
Law enforcement doesn’t view them as a way to sneak up on people; rather, they help easily identify potentially dangerous driving behaviors that drivers might quell if they see a police car.
Sgt. Michael Blevins of the Sahuarita Police Department said they have three or four ghost vehicles in their fleet and their intent is “not to catch more people committing traffic violations.”
“A goal is to allow officers to be of a lower profile and address flagrant and dangerous driving and DUI violations,” he said. “These are the types of violations that cause collisions and endanger residents. Occasionally, someone will peel out in front of a traditionally marked police car, but that type of flagrant and dangerous violation may be seen more frequently when the police vehicle is not a marked black and white police vehicle.”
Ghost cars have everything a typical police vehicle has. They just use lower-profile graphics that are not easily seen from afar and lack a light bar on top of the vehicle. Those lights are inside.
Blevins said the ghost cars in their fleet cost the same as their regular vehicles.
“These types of low-profile vehicles are used by local, state and federal agencies and are useful in dealing with aggressive drivers,” he said. “They are not a secretive vehicle.”
The Pima County Sheriff’s Department also uses ghost cars in its traffic patrol fleet.
Traffic Unit Supervisor Sgt. Edward Curtin said they have about 10 patrol cars with subdued light gray graphics and interior lights rather than a top light bar. Lights are inside the front and back windshields.
“Their main use is for traffic enforcement and they just blend in a little more,” he said. “We have very few of them and they are certainly not a replacement for a typical patrol car with the normal striping.”
The Sheriff’s Department began using ghost cars two years ago and Curtin helped to get several for the traffic unit this year. Vehicles outfitted as ghost cars are ones that were going to be purchased anyway.
Curtin said ghost cars can be used for any type of traffic enforcement and are especially helpful if they are doing some kind of targeted enforcement, such as red light running, speeding or stop sign violations.
“If we’re doing targeted enforcement sometimes it's hard to just put a patrol car out there because everyone will see it and start slowing down or be extra careful,” he said. “That serves a purpose and we do want people to see patrol cars and do the right thing, we do want that deterrent for traffic or criminal violations, but these (ghost cars) are super helpful so we can see people driving how they would normally.”
The department does not plan to bring more ghost cars into the fleet at this time and the majority of vehicles the Sheriff’s Department uses are traditionally marked.
The department's ghost cars can be used in any part of the county as needed, including Green Valley, and are not assigned to one specific area.
Blevins said along with having benefits for traffic enforcement, the Sahuarita Police Department sees their ghost cars as a good community outreach tool. They have posted about them on social media and have displayed them at public events where they are often “conversation starters.”
“It’s helped start a lot of good and positive conversations with the public, similar to when officers do bike and ATV patrols,” he said. “People want to check out the vehicles and talk, making for a good community policing non-enforcement interaction.”