Laguna Beach police cars will keep the American flag-adorned lettering that became the subject of a nationwide debate over whether the design is patriotic or “threatening.”
The decision came in a 4-1 City Council vote Tuesday night after two hours of raucous public comment that at times included the singing of the national anthem and chants of “USA.”
At least 200 people packed the council chamber, where police officers guarded the doors. Many in attendance wore combinations of red, white and blue. Some donned veteran or American Legion hats. A couple wore “Make America Great Again” caps.
One woman burst into the national anthem and most of the crowd joined her in song. Several people recited poems.
“This became about the flag, but before that it was not about the flag, it was about what our Police Department wanted, what they thought they could best serve the community with,” Mayor Bob Whalen said.
A few speakers had qualms about the design, which couples the cars’ new black-and-white color scheme with the American flag graphic.
Longtime Laguna Beach resident Patrick Cannon said that when he sees the new logo on police cars, he sees “Immigration and Customs Enforcement” because the red and white of the flag runs through the capital letters “ice” in “police.”
“We’re Rainbow sandal-wearing, avocado-eating … surfers and artists, and inclusion is part of our town,” Cannon said. “We do not include our Hispanic community by putting ‘ICE’ on our police cars.”
Chris Prelitz said he has seen “nothing but hate” toward anyone who questioned the design. Audience members interrupted him with boos, and Whalen quieted the crowd.
“The other side does exist,” Prelitz said. “Everyone here supports the red, white and blue, and I'm fine with that. I was just pointing out that there might be unintended consequences, and you’re seeing that [tonight].”
Councilwoman Toni Iseman, who cast the lone dissenting vote, said Laguna Beach doesn’t have a problem with patriotism, but she suggested making the “i” in “police” blue so that ‘ice” wouldn’t be all red.
“You're really all here because you believe we should protect against the tyranny of the majority,” Iseman told the crowd. “We have to protect the minority voice or we don’t have a democracy.”
Iseman said she warned people who opposed the design not to go to the meeting after receiving emails calling her a “commie,” “coward” and “old hippie.”
Conservative activist and local attorney Jennifer Zeiter began the conversation about the flag before the council took up the topic, asking for 10 seconds of silence to honor service members killed recently in Afghanistan. Her son serves in the military in Iraq, she said as she placed a triangle-shaped American flag in a case on the podium.
“This flag is what they’re fighting for, and they’re fighting for all of us,” she said to cheers from many in the audience.
Jim Gilchrist, a Vietnam War veteran, said he was “awed” to see the number of Laguna Beach residents who came out to support the flag.
“This flag is very personal to me,” he said, choking up at the memory of fellow Marines who died in the war. “I fly a flag in front of my house to remember those men every day. To have that flag on a police car is great.”
The council first agreed to redesign the city’s mostly white Ford Explorer police vehicles in February, choosing a black-and-white look and the image of Old Glory running through the word “police” on the doors.
The council decided to revisit its decision this month “out of an abundance of caution” after hearing complaints from residents and acknowledging that the bold-colored design currently on the cars doesn’t match the option the council initially chose, Mayor Pro Tem Steve Dicterow said in an interview Monday.
The graphic the council unanimously approved Feb. 19 was a more muted version — what City Manager John Pietig called “a cloud-like look.”
Some residents asked the council to review its decision because the actual graphic — printed on seven of 11 Laguna Beach Police Department squad cars — was different than the one approved.
Others felt the new design on a police car was “threatening, intimidating, harassing and a symbol of racism,” Dicterow said.
Online reaction to the council’s pending review exploded in recent days as people across the country debated the matter as a question of patriotism. A small group of demonstrators gathered near Main Beach on Monday afternoon to show support for the new-look squad cars.
Council members said they received hundreds of calls and messages, some from people threatening to boycott Laguna Beach businesses if the council didn’t keep the graphic.
Councilman Peter Blake said he was glad for the conversation and the national spotlight, which he felt opened an opportunity for the city to “really love our flag.”