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Police balk at ads on vehicles

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Businesses are advertising on a Johnson County Sheriff's Office vehicle. The money from the advertising is used for a youth education program.

Submitted photo.
Businesses are advertising on a Johnson County Sheriff's Office vehicle. The money from the advertising is used for a youth education program. Submitted photo.

Businesses are advertising on a sheriff’s deputy vehicle that’s used for a youth education program, but don’t expect to see local police cars covered with ads as though they’re racecars.

Johnson County Sheriff Doug Cox said the ads were unique, since private donations entirely pay for the department’s youth assistance and crime prevention program and spare taxpayers the expense. The sponsors get recognized with decals on a vehicle, and the county is able to fund the program that warns kids about drugs, alcohol and dangers on the Internet.

Cox doesn’t want ads on any police cars, a growing trend across the country as local governments look for ways to pay for services. He has concerns about the vehicles looking tacky, inappropriate businesses wanting to advertise and the risk that ads could confuse residents, who might question whether they’re dealing with real police officers.

But police eventually might need to consider advertising decals on police cars, especially in an age when ads can be found on high school football scoreboards and libraries are pursuing more corporate sponsorships to plug revenue shortfalls, Greenwood Police Department Assistant Chief Matthew Fillenwarth said.

Budget cuts and property tax caps are putting constraints on funding for local governments, and police departments may have to consider sponsorships and other revenue sources in the future, Fillenwarth said.

“With shrinking budgets, it’s probably only a matter of time,” he said. “It’ll probably come down to need.”

Cash-strapped cities across the country already have sold advertising on police cruisers. Police departments in Florida, Ohio and Massachusetts, for instance, have let businesses rent bumper sticker-sized spaces on the back of their cars as a way to boost revenue. Baltimore is looking at placing ads on the sides of fire trucks.

Greenwood police briefly talked about the possibility of selling ad space inside a police van to bail bondsmen. The people being arrested could use the contact information, and police could use the extra income for training and equipment, especially for the SWAT team, Fillenwarth said.

“People always ask why the SWAT team doesn’t have a robot,” he said. “Well, that’s because it’s $30,000. An armored vehicle would cost $300,000. Anything tactical is expensive.”

But Greenwood police have not seriously explored the option, and it could raise issues such as preferential treatment, Fillenwarth said.

Franklin police have not considered allowing advertising, Police Chief Tim O’Sullivan said. The only advertising that’s ever been done on Franklin police cruisers was putting the city website address on some of the bumpers.

People can then go to the city website to request records from the police department or learn more about its services, O’Sullivan said. No businesses have approached the police department about advertising, and O’Sullivan said he wasn’t interested in pursuing it.

O’Sullivan said ads were fine on a car used for DARE or some other educational program but shouldn’t be on typical police cruisers because it looked unprofessional.

“It’s a city-owned vehicle that was paid for by taxpayers,” he said. “It shouldn’t be a rolling billboard.”

The sheriff’s office allows ads on only the vehicle that’s solely used by a reserve sheriff’s deputy who teaches Johnson County kids about bullying, guns, alcohol, drugs and Internet safety.

Cox said that ads would not appear on any sheriff’s office vehicles other than the sport utility vehicle driven by reserve deputy Brian Baird, who runs the youth education program. Baird, who also is a newly elected commissioner, owns the vehicle and leases it back to the county so it can be used as a police vehicle for the program.

Cox said he generally is not a fan of advertising on police cars, but he made an exception for the school program because it depends on donations and no tax dollars are spent on it. The sheriff’s office wants to continue to be involved in the schools, he said.

“Anytime you can have a police officer in the schools it’s a good thing,” he said. “But we have budget constraints and not near enough manpower. This is a way we can have a police officer in the schools.”

The vehicle is privately owned but says “Johnson County Sheriff’s Office” on the side.

Johnson County once paid for the vehicle’s gas, insurance and other expenses but couldn’t afford to after budget cuts, Chief Deputy Randy Werden said. Baird then bought the vehicle and pays for all of its expenses, so the program can keep going, Werden said.

He doesn’t get paid to run the educational program at elementary schools and relies on donations from two businesses to pay for pencils, notebooks and other school supplies that are given out during visits. L.D. Mechanical Contractors, which Baird owns, and Lee Supply Corp. donate whenever more supplies are needed.

Baird collects the money and said that he had no estimate of how much the advertisements bring in per year, but that the donors cover all the program’s expenses. He isn’t soliciting money from other sponsors and wouldn’t accept any more, he said.

L.D. Mechanical Contractors is the main backer of the educational program, Baird said. Radio Disney also had been a major sponsor but recently ended its agreement with the county because it wanted to follow the police program with a presentation of its own, and local schools couldn’t spare that much time, Baird said.

He put small decals on the back of the program’s SUV to recognize the donors’ support, but the businesses hadn’t requested any ads or recognition for their contributions to the youth education program, Baird said.

The program is similar to D.A.R.E. and McGruff the Crime Dog but has a curriculum tailored to Johnson County school kids.

Cox said the program does a lot of good, such as by teaching children how to stay safe while they’re online.

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