The typical cop car isn’t born—it’s slapped together. Traditionally, this involved taking a production vehicle, bolting on a reinforced bumper and adding some lights and a divider between the front and back seats.
But as law enforcement agencies update their fleets, the police car is evolving. The Ford Crown Victorias of the past half-century are losing ground to more powerful models, like the Dodge Charger. (Dodge was in financial limbo at press time, but we’re not giving up on the Charger just yet.) And these cars are being outfitted with gadgets that add extra eyes and ears to a policeman’s arsenal.
Not all of this gear is on the road yet, but the trend is toward turning the police car into another node in an omnipresent network of surveillance sensors, capable of tracking even people who have done nothing to arouse suspicion. And this has civil liberties groups worried. “These devices allow for the forensic reconstruction of much of your life,” says Lee Tien, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “The police could go back through GPS data and plate records and know when you visited a strip club or an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, or which political rallies or gun shows you drove to."
But those who have used the new technology say it could help protect civil liberties. “When a license plate camera looks at a plate, it’s not looking at gender, race or ethnicity,” says Sgt. Daniel Gomez, a member of a Los Angeles Police Department division that tests new technologies. “All it’s looking for are numbers.”
Whether the next generation of police cruisers will be a breakthrough for investigators, a step toward a surveillance society or a little of both, the era of the crime-fighting cab is screeching to a halt. Here’s what cop cars of the future may look like.