December 2nd, 2016 by

Smart Fortwos are replacing scooters that for years have had their own odd place in New York City’s fleet of otherwise muscular police vehicles. Credit Christian Hansen for The New York Times
In New York City’s tabloid newspapers and on blogs, they have been derided as “clown cars.” The previous police commissioner, William J. Bratton, described the subcompacts as “midget cars,” even as he announced their rollout last year.

But the city cannot seem to get enough of the tiny, bean-shaped vehicles, which look like curiously shrunken cousins of the iconic New York Police Department patrol car and which never fail to draw the attention, and sometimes the affection, of curious passers-by.

So despite the quips, and in part because of them, the agency is rolling out even more of the little vehicles, which are outfitted with red and blue lights and the insignia of the Police Department.

The two-seat Smart Fortwos are taking the place of three-wheeled scooters that for decades have had their own peculiar place in the city’s vast fleet of otherwise muscular police vehicles.

The Smart cars, though, are safer, cheaper and easier to operate. The officers appreciate the air-conditioning. There is also another unexpected benefit: As the Police Department has sought to project its friendlier side in an era of low crime, the Smart car has been an effective icebreaker.

Among the department’s fleet of thousands of vehicles, including Ford Explorers racing to 911 calls and tow trucks clearing traffic lanes during the evening rush, the Smart car is quite possibly the only one that has its picture routinely shared on social media, described as “adorable” or, in the case of one parked in the West Village, “Cuuuuuute.”

“It’s just so approachable,” said Robert S. Martinez, the deputy commissioner for support services, who oversees the department’s vehicles. “People want to take pictures with it. People want to hug it, they want to kiss it. It’s just amazing.”

I finally saw one of the N.Y.P.D. smart cars in action today, blocking a street in Queens, barely.

It has no siren and no space for a suspect, but its look borrows heavily from that of the department’s patrol cars, down to the blue stripes and the scrolling message board. The R.M.P., the shorthand in New York for a radio motor patrol car, has long been a defining symbol of the nation’s largest municipal police force, one broadcast far beyond the city’s borders by way of movies and television shows like “NYPD Blue” and “Law & Order.”

It was an image shaped largely by the R.M.P.s of an earlier era: Chevrolet Caprices and Ford Crown Victorias. The cars were boxy, durable and occasionally missing a hubcap or two — rolling emblems of a department keeping watch over what was then a grittier metropolis. To some, the vehicles represented an unwelcome presence; to others, like Albert Roman, a retired narcotics detective from the Bronx, the cars conveyed authority. “It stands for something,” Mr. Roman, who restores and collects retired R.M.P.s, said.

The first time he saw one of the Smart cars, he thought it was a joke. “To me, the cars look a little silly,” Mr. Roman said, even though he acknowledged the rationale for buying them made sense.

New York Police Vehicles Through the AgesCreditUnderwood & Underwood
Still, the car sends a message, if not necessarily a commanding one.

“It’s nice to have something to break the ice,” Michael Arad, the architect who designed the Sept. 11 memorial at the World Trade Center, said. One of the Smart cars parked in Lower Manhattan had recently caught his eye, and led him to joke to officers standing near it, wearing armor and carrying long guns, that they probably could not fit inside.

“I don’t think I would have joked with them if the car wasn’t there,” Mr. Arad said. “They thought the car was funny, too. It draws people out in a period of time when there’s so much tension around.”

Vehicles have often played a part in the politics of policing. In recent years, amid roiling racial tensions between minority communities and law enforcement, activists have pointed to the hulking armored vehicles mobilized in protests across the country as symptomatic of the militarization of the police.

Conversely, the police in New York have used cars as tools for community outreach, like the one outfitted this summer with rainbow colors and the motto “Out and Proud” for gay pride festivities. (Mayor Bill de Blasio, in a news conference, praised the car as “a real act of solidarity.”)

Almost as soon as the Smart cars hit the street, photographs started popping up on Twitter and Instagram, usually accompanied by a lighthearted caption, teasing about budget cuts or asking, simply, why. A user on Reddit posted a photograph of a bunch of the cars parked in a field, calling it the mother lode. (“Oh my!” another user replied. “Are they planning on air dropping these for quicker deployment?”)

“You might be bigger but I am smarter,” said the Smart Car. “But I have more horsepower,” the horse replied.

In Jamaica, Queens, the 113th Precinct posted a tweet with a picture of officers on horseback staring down at the car: “‘You might be bigger but I am smarter,’ said the Smart Car. ‘But I have more horsepower,’ the horse replied.”

The Police Department is among the first public safety organizations in the world to introduce the cars, manufactured by the German automaker Daimler AG, in large numbers, with 150 already in service and at least 75 more coming.

The cars each cost about $23,400, compared with $29,500 for a three-wheeled scooter. And unlike the scooters, officers do not need a motorcycle license to operate one. It is also deceptively spacious. (The 72nd Precinct in Brooklyn posted a picture on Twitter of its tallest officer, standing 6-foot-6, seated snugly behind the wheel).

The scooter was limited to 35 m.p.h., while the Smart car is fast enough for the highway. Even so, officials emphasized it was still seen more as a scooter than a squad car.

“When you call 911,” Mr. Martinez said, “a scooter’s not coming.”

On a recent morning in Brooklyn Bridge Park, one of the Smart cars cruised along the waterfront, nimble enough to circle back on a narrow walkway. At times, it seemed to generate almost as much attention among tourists as the bridge.

Amy Braccio had just crossed the East River in a water taxi, carrying a gift and a balloon for her nephew’s second birthday party. She said the car was certainly good for conversation.

“I mean, it’s adorable,” she said, before posing for a picture, the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan skyline filling the horizon behind her and a tiny police car at her side.

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