Police consider ads on cruisers despite attorney general's warning

CHARDON, Ohio (AP) - Police in 13 Ohio communities in need of new patrol cars want to buy cruisers for $1 with advertising on them despite advice from the state attorney general that it would be illegal.
Placing ads on police cars creates a potential safety issue and could leave law enforcement open to a lawsuit, said Kim Norris, spokeswoman for Attorney General Jim Petro.
Although Petro has advised against turning cruisers into rolling billboards, some cash-strapped departments are still interested.
"If I had my druthers, I'd rather not do something like this," said Chardon Police Chief David Hyslop. "But I have a fleet that's going to wear out, and there's no money in the budget to buy new cars. The purpose here is to get something I otherwise can't get, so I'm willing to listen to anything."
Government Acquisitions Inc. of Charlotte, N.C., has contracts to place ads on emergency vehicles with more than 400 towns across the nation, according to its Web site.
It's goal is to put more safety vehicles on the road by giving them to law enforcement agencies for $1 in exchange for placing ads on them. The program prohibits ads for alcohol, firearms, gambling and tobacco.
Government Acquisitions has yet to actually place a sponsored vehicle on the road, but company founder Ken Allison said he expects to do so before year's end. He said numerous sponsorship deals are being wrapped up.
Some who have signed up for the program, such as Attica Police Chief Jeff Briggs, are not optimistic they will get a vehicle.
"I'll believe it when I see it," Briggs said. "But if it ever comes, we'll put it to use."
Police Chief Randy Sanders of Everman, Texas, said he is getting skeptical.
"They called just this week and told us there was going to be a setback because we're a completely residential neighborhood," Sanders said.
Petro issued an opinion in March that said putting ads on sheriff's cars would violate a state law requiring the vehicles to be uniform statewide.
Law enforcement vehicles need to be unmistakingly identifiable, and commercializing the cars could cause confusion, according to Petro.
"That's his opinion," said Botkins Police Chief Wayne T. Glass Jr., who has signed a contract with Government Acquisitions.
The village about 50 miles north of Dayton has a budget deficit and badly needs to replace a 1996 patrol car with 102,000 miles, he said.
"There's currently no law in Ohio that tells police on how to decorate or design their cars other than to have "POLICE" on each side," Glass said. "We've researched it. We can't find anything to support Petro's statement."
Petro's office issues legal opinions to law enforcement, but is not responsible for enforcing them.
If a police department were sued over the ads, it would ultimately be up to the courts to decide, Norris said.
In West Virginia, the Ethics Commission ruled Thursday that putting the ads on police cruisers would violate the state's ethics law. Two communities had approved buying sport-utility vehicles with advertising.
But the commission said the endorsement of a commercial product or service could be interpreted as using public office for private gain.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)