January 7, 2008 2:56 PM   Subscribe

CopFilter: In TV shows and movies cops (usually homicide detectives) often have lights and siren installed in their personal cars. Doe this really happen?

There are literally dozens of movies and shows where this is the case (immediately off the top of my head I can think of Journeyman and Bad Boys). A cop has a car (most notable when it's a nice car) which has full lights and siren set up in it (in Journeyman, Jack's car has red/blue flashers in windscreen, siren and headlight flashers).

So it is real? I'm fairly sure it doesn't happen in my neck of the woods - although I know that some Fire service personnel have removable lights (of the stick on the roof variety) for their cars.
posted by sycophant to Law & Government (15 answers total)
I'm good friends with the sheriff of my county, and his personal car (a SUV) has lights and a siren, as well as a police radio. I've seen him pull people over with it, too :)
posted by DMan at 3:07 PM on January 7, 2008

I see these kinds of setups all the time here in the NOVA/DC area, at least 2-3 times a week...
posted by blind.wombat at 3:09 PM on January 7, 2008

Yes, it happens. Generally, these are not "personal" cars with upgrades, though. They're "company cars" purchased by the police force and assigned to the officer/agent/detective.

Fun fact: These cars are often significantly modified for police use, so they have other interesting do-hickeys often hidden from view, like bigger engines, transmission upgrades, huge batteries, big tires, stiff suspensions, bullet-proof doors and glass, custom trunk accessories for firearms, evidence, etc. They're not performance "tuner" cars, because they're too heavy, though.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:21 PM on January 7, 2008

Is it possible that you aren't distinguishing between the character's "personal car" and what is intended to represent a department-issue unmarked vehicle, on the show?

A family member of mine was a detective. The department policy was that as long as an officer lived in the city limits, he or she was eligible to park any police department vehicle at home while not on duty, and to use it for transit to and from work. He was issued a regular brown unmarked sedan, that had blue/reds in the windshield, sirens, and Q-beams at the sideview mirrors. Occasionally, the family member did use it for off-duty police response (I was in the car once when we joined a pursuit! simultaneously exciting and pee-your-pants-scary).

I'm not a law enforcement expert, by any means, but I've always anecdotally heard that most cops do have the option of taking their vehicle home, since it reinforces community safety -- so I assumed that was pretty standard.

I've never known of a personal vehicle, owned by a private citizen, to be installed with lights and sirens. Not saying it doesn't happen -- just that my impression was that a car can look like a personal vehicle, and be driven on personal time, but still be a department-issue car.
posted by pineapple at 3:29 PM on January 7, 2008

In most states, it would be illegal for a non-state/city owned vehicle to have the blue & red flashers, so it would have to be a 'loaned' company car.
posted by nomisxid at 3:42 PM on January 7, 2008

What Cool Papa Bell and others have said. My sibling is a cop and apparently they give you the option of taking your patrol (or unmarked) car home - issuing it to you for general use. It is not a modified "personal" vehicle. It is entirely voluntary, at least for my siblings jurisdiction.
posted by elendil71 at 3:47 PM on January 7, 2008

In Hawaii, many of the police officers drive privately owned vehicles. All of these vehicles are unmarked, but use a single blue (removable) light affixed to the top of their car. I'm not sure, but i have heard that officers are partially re-imbursed on the purchase price of these cars.
posted by ShootTheMoon at 4:17 PM on January 7, 2008

nomisxid, in some states, it's only illegal to use them or purchase them without authorization. Thus, if you are a LEO, you can buy the flashers. Of course, you can only use them when they would otherwise be allowed, but it doesn't matter if they're on your personal vehicle or not.
posted by wierdo at 4:18 PM on January 7, 2008

Two threads (started by same volunteer fireman) at firehouse.com and emsresponder.com indicate that while it may be legal to have lights/siren in a truly personal vehicle, it is discouraged by most departments nowadays due to liability issues.

Similar from officer.com

New York State has a faq on personal vehicles with lights: blue for firefighters, green for EMS, amber for hazard vehicle or civilian safety officers. Traffic is not required by law to yield, but may do so as a courtesy.

Other private vehicles that may have lights include USPS rural carriers, various conservation officers, and the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (Ham radio).

I believe in most cases you would have to have authorization through your employer and the state department of transportation.

Typical product
posted by dhartung at 5:02 PM on January 7, 2008

Response by poster: Definitely private cars - Journeyman it's some sort of 60's American muscle car (not my area of expertise) - in Bad Boys II it's another luxury sports car.

Obviously there's also all the ones where the characters drive their unmarked police sedans (Crown Victoria or whatever).
posted by sycophant at 5:02 PM on January 7, 2008

People have been discussing these cars in recent episodes of The Wire, (tiniest of spoilers) using the term "take-home car", as in, "you no longer have the use of your take-home car due to budget cuts'.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 5:13 PM on January 7, 2008

I knew a guy in college who was a volunteer fireman. He had a wig wag flasher installed on the headlights of his Toyota pickup.
posted by grabbingsand at 5:21 PM on January 7, 2008

The car is known as a take-home. Many officers get one if they live in the jurisdiction. It allows for rapid response, and more importantly to the jurisdiction, they drive an obvious (even if unmarked) cop car around town and park it in front of their house. This counts as a police presence.

I see above that the Wire is, as usually totally correct. I work with police clients all the time and they seem to always get it right.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:00 PM on January 7, 2008

Response by poster: Yeah, take-home work vehicles are certainly one thing... But in the movies and programs I am thinking of, they are certainly not state-owned cars, they are luxury and muscle cars (in Journeyman it's clearly laid out in the story that the guy owned the car before he was even a cop).

Always seemed a little unlikely to me - but usually hardly the most unbelievable thing in the movie or program.
posted by sycophant at 1:56 AM on January 8, 2008

An aquaintance is a supervisor for one of the local ambulance companies. His Mustang is equipped with a visor-mounted yellow/red flasher in the front, and a glass-mounted yellow/red flasher in the back. He also carries an EMS bag and some other gear in his trunk, and has used his car for responses when on call more than once, and once when just driving around town and coming upon a fairly recent accident.
posted by phredgreen at 7:09 AM on January 8, 2008

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