Pima County Deputy James Brown and his “ghost car,” which looks very much like its civilian counterpart, without obvious lights, bumpers, antennae or signage. The department says it will use the cars for its anti-smuggling efforts.

Every driver in Southern Arizona has committed to memory a mental checklist of how to identify law enforcement at a glance.

Gone are the days of just looking for the easy-to-identify outline of a Ford sedan, as technological changes have trained us to look for the push bumpers, the cluster of antennas, the lights or even the simple lettering on the doors.

The Pima County Sheriff’s Department has recently upped the ante with two newly outfitted SUVs that are nearly identical to their civilian counterparts. Neither model has the unique bumper, the lights are cleverly hidden, and the antennas are hard to see.

The lettering is as close as you can get to a work of art on the side of a police cruiser. On the side of the all-white Fords, the Sheriff’s Department has off-white reflective lettering that is nearly impossible to see, and by the time you do, it might be too late.

They are called ghost cars, and they are redefining what a marked police vehicle looks like.

Before you say entrapment, Sgt. Patrick Hilliker with the Sheriff’s Department’s Border Interdiction Unit notes that its new pair of vehicles are not in the primary motor pool.

They’ve been set aside for dangerous assignments, individually deployed to fight smugglers.

“It is just another tool for our unit’s ability to be able to interdict, disrupt and deter smuggling,” Hilliker said.

The near-stealth quality of the design protects deputies without resorting to unmarked vehicles.

“It is not as blatantly identifiable as a cop,” he said.

The ghost cars are the best of both worlds, Hilliker says, explaining that while it might take a second or third glance, average citizens can tell that it is a legitimate police vehicle.

“The public is able to see that we are the police,” Hilliker said.

The ghost cars in the sheriff’s fleet cost the same as a normally outfitted police vehicle, he told the Arizona Daily Star, and the specialized lettering isn’t more expensive.

For the time being, the department has no plans to buy more or use them in more traditional roles like traffic enforcement.

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The only other area agency to use ghost vehicles is the Arizona Department of Public Safety, which has been using them since 2015.

Bart Graves, a spokesman for DPS, said the agency uses the ghost patrol vehicles for DUI enforcement, going after aggressive drivers and to catch those speeding on Arizona highways.

Down the Road
  • City crews will begin work to repave the Grant Road/Oracle Road intersection this week.

Drivers should expect delays along Grant Road from 15th Avenue to Ninth Avenue and on Oracle Road from Rillito Street to Alturas Street, including the Grant/Oracle intersection.

  • Later this week, Sun Tran will add a 60-foot articulated bus to Route 18, which runs up and down South Sixth Avenue. The new bus, which can hold up to 70 seated passengers, was purchased to handle the high-ridership route.

An articulated bus looks similar to the Modern Streetcar, resembling two separate buses joined together by a flexible, pivoting joint.

Contact reporter Joe Ferguson at jferguson@tucson.com or 573-4197. On Twitter: @JoeFerguson

Reporter

Joe has been with the Star for six years. He covers politics as well as the city of Tucson and other municipalities in Southern Arizona. He graduated from the UA and previously worked for the Arizona Daily Sun.