By Daniel Langhorne, Special to the Independent
The stars and stripes will continue to emblazon Laguna Beach police cars following a whirlwind of national media attention this week about a relatively small group of Laguna Beach residents who expressed discomfort with displaying such an explicitly patriotic graphic.
More than 200 people packed the City Council chambers on Tuesday, some wearing Make American Great Again hats, American flags draped around their shoulders, and American Legion covers. Several of the speakers supporting the police cars’ new look emotionally shared stories about losing friends while serving with the U.S. military in Korea and Vietnam.
The fervor culminated with a woman, who declined to give her name, using her public comment to sing the national anthem. She was joined by most members of the audience.
Mayor Pro Tem Steve Dicterow said it was clear that the public hearing had wandered far from its intended purpose of reaffirming a vote needed to improve public safety.
“This is America and we are entitled to our own opinions,” Dicterow said. “The First Amendment is something we are all here to protect, whether we agree with someone or not.”
The buzz about Laguna Beach’s patrol cars started in February when Chief Laura Farinella asked the City Council to adopt a new black and white color scheme. Laguna Beach police officers have been asking for at least seven years for the department to phase out white patrol cars.
The City Council initially chose a preliminary design for the side of the police cars that involved more muted pink and baby blue.
“I did not feel that that coloring properly represented the American flag and I approved the primary colors of the graphic to be placed on the car,” Farinella said.
This new color scheme took some residents by surprise in recent weeks because it was never presented to the City Council. Subsequently, an unnamed person threatened to sue the city for not adequately notifying the public about the change and the opportunity to comment on it. City Attorney Phil Kohn said the city didn’t want to fight over these issues and agreed to put the police car design back on the agenda to be extra cautious about not violating the Brown Act.
Tuesday’s City Council meeting was uncharacteristically raucous, and despite many pleas from Mayor Bob Whalen to observe the usual protocol of waving hands in approval, audience members regularly erupted with applause and cheers.
Laguna Beach resident Steve McIntosh said he supports the police cars’ bolder appearance if it inhibits people from committing crimes in public.
“These are the things that motivate first responders and their jobs are hard enough and we shouldn’t be taking it away,” McIntosh said.
Vietnam veteran Larry Bales said he considers it an honor for Laguna Beach’s police cars to represent the United States and its veterans.
“I’m appalled that some residents are complaining the American flag is too aggressive and militaristic for possibly offending immigrants,” he said. “Why are they here if the American flag offends them?”
Laguna Beach resident Jill James said she supports the City Council’s decision to reaffirm the stars and stripes design but is also disturbed with people questioning the patriotism of others who are concerned about how the design was changed without public input.
“The act of questioning the active graphic and how it was implemented is very patriotic as it came out of residents’ concerns for their city and the residents’ right to express their opinion and their civic duty to be active citizens,” James said.
Stacy Dumas, an eight-year resident of Laguna Beach, said she was shocked to hear from her mother in Michigan that the stars and stripes on Laguna Beach’s police cars had become national news.
“Why did we make this a national thing is my question,” Dumas said. “This was not this blown out thing before the news got involved. Shame on the news for not reporting both sides and all of the story.”
As an alternative to the current design, Councilwoman Toni Iseman suggested that the city change the “I” in the word “POLICE” from red and white to blue. Currently, the design happens to emphasize the “ICE” in police, which some residents have argued draws an inappropriate connection between the police department and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The rest of the City Council disagreed, and Iseman was the lone vote against the stars and stripes design. However, the City Council found common ground and unanimously voted to endorse “serving our community with pride and integrity” as the police department’s new service statement.
Sgt. Jim Cota, a spokesman for the Laguna Beach Police Department, said the four white patrol vehicles remaining in the city’s fleet will likely get their new paint job within the next week.