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Laguna Beach might tone down the American flag graphic on its police cars

Laguna Beach might tone down the American flag graphic on its police cars
The flag design on Laguna Beach police cars has stirred discussion about whether the new theme properly reflects the community. (Laguna Beach Police Department)

A decision to repaint Laguna Beach police cars with an image of the American flag running through lettering on the doors will return to the City Council Tuesday after some residents deemed it unfit for the artists’ community.

Though most of the comments made by residents in recent months were about the squad cars’ new aesthetics, online reaction in recent days characterized the debate as pitting flag supporters against flag opponents. City officials say the matter is far more nuanced.

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Mayor Pro Tem Steve Dicterow said Monday the council is simply facing “a very narrow decision” about the brightness of the colors, but that the issue has devolved into a broader national conversation about patriotism.

He said he has received hundreds of emails from people around the country, mostly in support of keeping the flag designs on the car.

“Clearly, the way it looks on the car is not what anyone expected it to look like,” Dicterow said. “I think it’s reasonable that we’re going to look at it again so that whatever we [approve] is exactly what we put on the car.”

He said he received about a dozen emails of concern from residents after the council approved the design and before it decided to rehear the issue.

“Some of the words people used was that they felt it was threatening, intimidating, harassing and a symbol of racism,” Dicterow said.

At a recent council meeting, local artist Carrie Woodburn said the design scheme on the squad cars looked “aggressive.”

On Monday morning, Woodburn said she had received more than 150 messages via phone calls, texts, voicemails and emails from people who disagreed with her assessment.

Woodburn, whose parents served in the military, said she wasn’t objecting to the appearance of the flag, and perceived some of the missives as threats.

“I don’t really care too much about the design, other than what I said — it's bad art,” Woodburn said. “I’m being attacked for that because the narrative feeds a fire of division, which is what our culture has become.”

The Laguna Beach City Council approved proposed redesigns for the police car — which included American flag lettering in light colors — with a unanimous vote in February. But the actual graphic appeared brighter on the police cars.
The Laguna Beach City Council approved proposed redesigns for the police car — which included American flag lettering in light colors — with a unanimous vote in February. But the actual graphic appeared brighter on the police cars. (Courtesy of the Laguna Beach staff report)

The new lettering also has plenty of fans.

Attorney Jennifer Welsh Zeiter said at the last council meeting that she found the police cars “exceptional” and questioned the loyalty of anyone who objected to the American flag display.

“They are so filled with hatred toward this ... office of the president of the United States and the current occupant of that office,” she said, “that they cannot see through their current biases to realize that a police vehicle with the American flag is the ultimate American expression.”

A small group of demonstrators gathered near the beach Monday afternoon to show support for the new-look squad cars.

The matter dates to February, when the council initially agreed to repaint its 11 mostly white squad cars, which are Ford Explorers, in black and white with the image of Old Glory running through the word “police” on the doors.

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The proposed graphic that the council unanimously approved then was a more muted version — what City Manager John Pietig called “a cloud-like look” of the design that now appears on the cars, according to a city staff report.

On Tuesday, the council will decide whether to continue with the logo or choose an alternative “out of an abundance of caution to address questions that have been raised about the process,” Pietig said two weeks ago.

Nevertheless, the questions about process turned into an online debate about intent.

“People are screaming that the American flag on a police car is somehow or another ... hurting people’s feelings who might be immigrants or visitors,” said Councilman Peter Blake. “People are actually ridiculous enough to bring up comments about our cop cars having American flags on them.”

Emil Monda, president of the Laguna Beach Republicans, said he thought the conversation surrounding the car designs was “bizarre.”

“It’s the flag of the United States of America,” Monda said. “It’s not a Republican flag, it’s not a Democrat flag. It’s our flag, and we can’t lose that.”

Those driving the vehicles haven't heard complaints.

“Every time I came to a stop sign, every time I came to a red light, somebody is telling me the car looks great,” Laguna Beach Police Cpl. Ryan Hotchkiss said at the March meeting. “Every one of our members that drives the car loves it, and we look forward to keeping them the way they are.”

Faith E. Pinho writes for Times Community News.

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