Whatcha gonna do?
(Apparently, put as many ugly stripes, fades, and swooshes on your car as possible, and see just how far they can stretch a cheesy font they downloaded for free. Because, you know: integrity and service).
Drink it in. Drink in the cheesy video game design aesthetics of these bastions of American law enforcement. Here are some more, before I get into what I think it all means:
Drink ’em in and maybe weep for my burning eyes, having to look at all of these fades and swooshes and stripes and swoops and all the colors of resplendent of junior college mascots and Trapper Keepers from the ’80’s. And so you don’t think I’m cherry-picking the badness, feast your eyes on even more:
Are your eyes bleeding yet? Of course they are. Because that stuff is just terrible. But, here again, my point isn’t to carp about shitty graphic design. My point here is about the aesthetics of authority – can we communicate authority without authoritarianism? – and about the process of design approval – why are police departments commissioning and approving these graphics?
To take the second point first: I wonder if there’s too much emphasis on personal choice in America. It seems strange to me that part of the process of designing emergency vehicles is making something that some police department official or town councilman thinks is “cool.” All of the above graphics are (ham-fisted) attempts at making something “cool”: fast, aggressive, graphics that would be at home in a video game or a sports arena. Because, presumably, the people making the aesthetic choices, the clients, here, are at home in the worlds of sports and video games. This is where choice becomes untenable, in my opinion. Cops have a tremendous amount of power to arrest, detain, tase, shoot, kill citizens. The problem with police is not a lack of power or machismo or aggression. The problem is a surfeit of all of that. These graphics, I think, exacerbate that kind of aesthetic of aggression. And these graphics, moreover, are chosen for precisely that reason.
Now, as a graphic designer for a company that provides emergency vehicle graphic packages, you probably have very little leeway in steering the aesthetic conversation away from that aggression to perhaps embody values more appropriate to the police (values like responsibility, citizenship, respect (for the policed and for the law), and tradition). Chances are, you’re some junior designer getting yelled at by the asshole who bought the vinyl cutting machines and has a cousin who does the purchasing for the county and is your boss. So the boss is trying to please the cops (who have no training in graphic design) or the politicians (ditto) and who himself has no training in graphic design, and you the designer has probably very limited experience with design. So we end up with the above crap.
Why is that the process? Why is the process in place on that produces the so often shitty values we see emblazoned on the sides of police cars? It’s not good for the policed, and I can’t imagine it’s good for the police, either. Just look at these next three and imagine what you’d think would be going through your head as you walked toward these cars at the start of your shift:
Those three are all obviously terribly ugly. But more than that, they’re communicating what is, I think, a completely misplaced patriotism. The message is that the police are true Americans, and anyone who runs afoul of the police officer (whether ultimately guilty or not) is somehow unAmerican. That is adding a vector that is unnecessary and, I would say, dangerous. Police can take your freedom and your life – they shouldn’t be engaged in communicating this kind of aggressive jingoism. Especially a kind of aggression that is inherently prejudicial against those whom the police are policing. In other words, all of us. They should be working for us, and within our own communities; not working as some kind of agents for the true America (and that’s just those three up there – the other messages are, to my mind, even worse).
You might say that it’s just stickers on a car, but bear in mind that the cops asked for, and got, these graphics. They are communicating this needlessly aggressive binary because they want to. They shouldn’t do it. And more than that, they shouldn’t want to in the first place.
So, what should we do? In my fantasy world that’s not filled wall-to-wall with ideological idiots, design would be a part of government, not farmed out to the lowest bidder (i.e., the least experienced). But that ain’t gonna happen. Maybe we could have civilian or voluntary design review committees to offer other values to consider beyond shit like this. Because, when you have design choices made by video game-playing sports fans, you get design that looks like a cross between a terrible sports team logo and a video game cop car (as shown below, in images from the manufacturers of cop graphics):
The graphics actually make sense, if you are a cop in a fake, CGI hellscape of razor wire, dramatic lighting, and low-poly shrubs – you know, Crimeville, where we all actually live. Am I the only one outraged that this is how they sell cop cars to police departments? I probably am, but still – holy fuck.
One last point (if the above can be said to constitute a “point,” which, the jury is probably still out on that one): Another major problem – at least to the naive citizen such as your correspondent – is that there is very little difference, graphically, between real police and private security departments. We should not fear or even really heed private security – businesses should not be in the business of policing, in my opinion. And we certainly shouldn’t be confusing rent-a-cops with actual police. But they both get their graphics from the same place, and that is a problem. When cops look as cheesy and ridiculous as the doofus patrolling a K-Mart lot, we are in danger of losing respect for them, as they are in danger of losing respect for themselves. Similarly, when a security guard patrol car looks more respectable than a real cop, we’re in danger of subconsciously conferring on a private company the respect that should rightfully belong to government (meaning, to us). When those lines are blurred – which they obviously are – it makes me think that we’re already living in a dystopian future.
Which, of course, we are.