- Above, Closed Course, Do Not Attempt -
If cars could talk, fewer vehicles would have more stories to tell than police cars. And few know that better than Officer Jim Ritter, from Seattle’s Metropolitan Police Museum.
“I used think it was the badge which was the main symbolism for police officers," said Ritter. "But I’ve come to the conclusion over the last 20 years - yeah we all have badges - but it’s the police cars that are the public’s first exposure to the police."
The Metropolitan Police Museum has restored a small fleet of local police cars including a 1978 Washington State Patrol car, 1967 King County Sheriff's Office vehicle and a 1970 Seattle Police car. Some of them were in really rough shape when the museum acquired them, but have been restored to full operational condition with support from local cops and lots of hard work from museum volunteers, using only authentic, period correct parts and police equipment. And more are currently under restoration.
But Ritter said the best part of bringing back these old cop cars is the reaction from the public.
People love ‘em.
“When we started restoring our 1970 Seattle Police Satellite I had it parked out in front of the museum and there were about eight younger males I recognized as gang members approached me," he said. "I was in plain clothes and I thought to myself 'This might not turn out well.'
The leader of the group asked Ritter if that was his car.
"The moment I said 'yeah,' all the attitudes were dropped and it was 18-year-old kids wanting to see as cool car," said Ritter. "This car has the ability to change people's attitude about the police - even people who don’t like the police. That group of kids had no reason to like to police, and the want to see the engine and the interior, this is old school stuff. When I saw that connection I thought, if it can work for these folks, it can work for anybody.”
Ritter and his organization regularly bring their antique police vehicles to car shows and parades. So, regular people can see them and have an additional opportunity to interact with police officers in a situation other than emergencies and traffic stops.
I asked Washington State Trooper Mike Cheek how he'd describe the handling characteristics of a ’78 WSP cruiser, through a challenging set of curves.
“I like the way mine handles better," he said.
The State Patrol 1978 Plymouth Fury’s 440 cubic inch engine has no trouble propelling us around the WSP training track, but the brakes? Well, some things don’t get better with age.
“The steering is a little bit more loose, the suspension is a little rougher" said Cheek. "I appreciate what I have now. But this is what they had back then, so this was a good car for the day."
His current set of wheels is a modern WSP Ford Interceptor. It has all-wheel-drive, ABS brakes, airbags, a radio 70s cops could only dream of and a mobile computer terminal to instantly find information about vehicles and drivers.
Overall, modern police cars are safer for officers and the public, but there’s no question the old ones are more fun to look at.
“The real value of this is for the public to see it, to see it rolling,” Ritter said. “See the equipment we used to use. When we had the museum in Pioneer Square for 20 years, it was really tough to shut that down, but we got people from all over the world coming to see this.”
Ritter said the Metropolitan Police Museum’s education center in Pioneer Square shut down in 2017 due to ground stability concerns, and as a result the museum’s vast collection of local police artifacts are in storage.
But, he says hopefully that will change one day.
“I’d love to find someone with too much money who doesn’t know what to do with it say, 'We have a building in downtown Seattle for all your artifacts and entire fleet of police cars where the public can see it', but that’s not a reality. It's a dream,” Ritter said.
“But you never know, we never expected to have a fleet this big we never expected to have the artifacts we do and if that phone rigs with someone who has a space for us and the ability to support it, we’re all ears.”