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Know the West

Come in, Krispy Kreme

  Idaho may have gained the dubious distinction of leading the West in regressive economic innovations. In the small town of Blackfoot, local police will soon show off the first of their three new police cruisers, all free to the taxpayer. Well, not exactly free. The patrol cars will cost a buck, and there is a slight hitch -- a Faustian Bargain -- if you will. The hoods, trunks and side panels of the police cars will display commercial advertisements. The Idaho Statesman says the Blackfoot Police Department is receiving its new patrol cars from an outfit called Government Acquisitions LLC, out of Charlotte, N.C. The private business tempts cash-strapped communities and states such as Idaho with vehicles sponsored by local and national companies.

Photos of the fancy police and emergency ambulance vehicles can be seen at the company's Website: governmentacquisitions.com. The business appears to be capitalizing on the national trend of privatizing public services traditionally funded by taxpayers.

About a dozen communities throughout the country have signed on to this peculiar alliance, and some 75 more are considering it. As Government Acquisitions puts it, "Instead of raising tax dollars or obtaining government funding to purchase vehicles and equipment for law enforcement, fire, rescue, EMS and other government agencies that provide homeland security, we acquire funding from local, regional and national companies in exchange for sponsor recognition and donate the vehicles and equipment to the government agencies."

Small towns in the West may need money, but do small town residents really want to link law enforcement with advertising? As it stands, gas pumps now feature recorded and video advertising. Television monitors in airport waiting rooms assault the frazzled nerves of travelers. For some reason we have allowed our clothes to become walking billboards, covered with shoe-company logos and the names of fashion designers. Our children recite commercial jingles like they are nursery rhymes. And remember the plan to place ads in the night skies? Trust me, as we breathe, there are men in dark suits working out the details. Idaho's City of Rocks -- arguably set under the clearest, starriest skies in the nation -- may someday become a City of Lights.

Thank goodness we have opposition from a nonprofit group in Portland, Ore., called Commercial Alert (commercialalert.org). "Our mission," the group says, "is to keep the commercial culture within its proper sphere, and to prevent it from exploiting children and subverting the higher values of family, community, environmental integrity and democracy."

Among Commercial Alert's board of directors are Ralph Nader, Green Party presidential candidate in 2000, and the Rev. Tom Grey, executive director of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling. (By the way, I thought the Idaho lottery was supposed to solve the state's funding problems.)

Last Oct. 30, the group sent a letter signed by 20 "criminal-justice experts" to the chief executive officers of 100 national corporations. The letter urged the bosses not to advertise on police and emergency vehicles. Citing a need to retain impartiality in law enforcement and not make officers the "objects of ridicule and contempt," the group said, "It is understandable that some police departments would succumb to this temptation. Many of them need money, and the nation's politicians have not provided it. But dependence on corporate advertising simply delays the day of fiscal reckoning. Besides, the answer to the budget problems of local police forces is not to turn their cars -- the most visible police presence in most communities -- into pitchmobiles, and officers themselves into hucksters on wheels."

Obvious conflicts of interest exist to the rolling billboards. Will a deputy in a town like Blackfoot, population 9,600, be reluctant to pull over the owner of the local Subway shop or other franchise who has either directly or indirectly paid to advertise on the patrol car's hood? And wouldn’t the placement of used car ads cheapen the authority of authority figures?

How do you seriously obey a command from a police officer with a donut commercial on his door? Aren't there enough jokes about cops and donuts?

It does not take a fortune-teller to see where this bad idea might lead, especially in Idaho, a state that continues to underfund public education at all levels. In a worst-case scenario, public school children could end up wearing uniforms laden with corporate patches -- Nike, McDonald's, Chevy, Pepsi, Coke, Starbucks, Simplot -- whatever it takes to keep the heat on and the salaries paid.

Following this idea to its dismal conclusion, administrators, teachers, students and even janitors may one day have to adhere to a code of conduct that best befits the corporation's image. Textbooks scrutinized. Background checks required. Lesson plans edited in advance by out-of-town hacks.

But why worry? The bad corporations with the worst motives were weeded out last year. Ten-four that.

Stephen J. Lyons is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). A displaced Westerner, he lives and writes in a small town in Illinois.