Why did Canadian police cars suddenly become menacing and combative?

When did our community policing culture shift from one of assistance to perceived intimidation, and where did our honoured, approachable peace officers go?

Are we following the footsteps of US police forces, which are armed with riot gear, armoured vehicles and other military-grade equipment?

Having built my life as a design professional in the field of visual culture over the past 20 years, I have to ask what purpose is served by recent shifts in police vehicle design in cities across Canada.

Toronto police cruisers are getting a drastic make-over, from white with bright red and blue decals, to stealth-like dark grey colours with equally somber decals that blend into the paint. Calgary recently switched its police vehicles to what’s been called “aggressive” and “paramilitary” black and white. And Vancouver unveiled all-black, stealth-like vehicles back in 2013.

Did the design briefs state and call for oppressive, aggressive, intimidating and combative traits?

That’s what these designs convey.

Design forms our visual culture and creates reality

We need to be more mindful and aware. Design forms our visual culture, which forms perception and ultimately creates our reality.

There’s a real connection between the use of colours and perceptions. For instance, grey is the colour of detachment, indecision and compromise. The closer grey fades to black, the more dramatic and mysterious it becomes.

Many countries in Europe, as well as Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong, have used bright, colourful Battenburg Markings for decades to gain visibility. The purpose of this universal language of assistance is to:

  • Enhance officer and public safety by reducing the likelihood of road accidents
  • Be recognizable as a police vehicle up to a distance of 1,600 ft. in normal daylight
  • Assist in high visibility policing to reassure the public and enhance potential deterrent benefits.

Fortunately, the RCMP, internationally known for its scarlet red uniforms, seems to be maintaining vivid colour schemes. It suggests RCMP officers are not lurking in the shadows waiting to get you. They’re out in the open, there to help.

So where’s this antagonistic ‘design of darkness’ coming from? Is it a reflection of our police forces’ internal psychology and culture?

It shouldn’t be. Not even close.

Canada is among the most peaceful nations in the world, welcoming and celebrating diverse nationalities and cultures. That’s not just a stereotype of politeness, apologetic kindness and quick smiles, it’s a fact.

Using 23 indicators to gauge ongoing domestic and international conflict, societal safety, security and militarization, the United Nations’ Global Peace Index ranks Canada 4th behind Iceland, Denmark and New Zealand.

That’s something to be proud of. And our police culture — how officers show up — needs to reflect who we are as a nation.

Police should be community leaders, not prison guards

We need officers to be community leaders, not prison guards. Police can be a beacon of light and enhance the quality of life for everyone in our communities. They’re integral to our safety, security and well-being.

We need officers on the street engaging community, visiting schools, chatting with students and handing out swag, not scaring the crap out of law-abiding citizens.

There might be a few bad apples we see in media, but police officers are courageous, responsible individuals with empathy and compassion. They demonstrate integrity and respectful engagement and collaboration with citizens.

I recently had the pleasure of listening to BC RCMP’s Lower Mainland District Commander Bill Fordy speak at a CreativeMornings event, where innovators explore and share ideas. He said he became a police officer “to help people.” He spoke a lot about being trustworthy, transparent, visible and engaging the community.

Those are powerful values, and they reflect who we are as a nation. So instead of being led down the dark and dismal military path, let’s consciously demonstrate and illuminate our radiant values to the world.

Although it’s ‘not Canadian’ to praise ourselves, it’s important to recognize our wins and successes, and periodically pat ourselves on the back.

Policing design should cultivate a safe and inclusive identity

We need to open up public discussions to stop this fear-mongering trend.

Design communities need to provide insight, input and guidance to establish the right meanings and messages. It’s critical on so many levels, from how it impacts our children’s views and behaviours to the type of recruits the police force attracts.

Others will look to us and follow.

Case in point: Los Angeles Police Department recruits are being taught “Canadian values and ideas” during their six-month courses. Yes, we’re teaching our friends to the South critical thinking and concepts like community values.

So let’s be true to ourselves and our values, and have our peace officers connect, collaborate and lead our communities with the right image and visual messages. Let’s cultivate, nurture and shape friendly, vibrant and inclusive communities where we can all be safe, healthy and happy. It’s a true reflection of who we are.

It’s the Canadian way.

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