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Q&A: James Duff of National Police Car Archives

Q+A  November 30 2012
 — By Nora Holloway
Q&A: James Duff of National Police Car Archives

Every state and every department has a unique way of doing things—and their cars are no exception. Luckily for those who live for police cars, James Duff and his team at National Police Car Archives work hard to document every single make and model.

The website was born out of a lifelong passion for police cars. In fact, in one of his very first photos, a 6-year-old Duff is seated behind the wheel of a police car. The picture was taken during a visit to his Pennsylvania kindergarten class. Although the NPCA wasn’t officially launched until 2003, one might say it has been a long time coming.

Duff was kind enough to offer some insight into his hobby, although some might call maintaining the website a full-time job in itself. Check out what he has to say about the NPCA.

This is what a prisoner transport vehicle looks like. Pictured is a 2005 Chevrolet Uplander.

How did NPCA get started?

The NPCA was started in March of 2003 as a result of my dislike for how long it took for my own photos to be added to the existing police car websites. The irony being nearly 10 years later we’re the ones with the long lag time!

I figured rather than complaining about it, I’d take the old “if you think you can do it better, do it yourself” attitude, and in my never humble opinion that’s what we have done! It took quite a few months of research into web hosting plans, photo storage sites, and teaching myself how to type in HTML.

What car did you first take a picture of? Was that the one that started it all?

I believe the very first picture of a police car has me seated behind the wheel at the age of six, when the South Park Township Police came to our school in kindergarten. I also took pictures of a couple of their cruisers in 1988 or so when I was 11-years-old. They had provided a police officer to direct traffic during Mass at our local Catholic church, because the parking lot was on the opposite side of a very busy state route.

The pictures that really started it all were taken in 1994. A friend of mine from Michigan wanted photos of an Ohio State Highway Patrol vehicle to build a model. He knew I had a neighbor who was a trooper, so he asked me to take them. My neighbor’s car actually turned out to be a 1993 Crown Vic, which my friend pointed out to me after I sent him the photos.

Perhaps this is the car that started it all? Pictured is a 1993 Crown Vic from Allegheny County in Pennsylvania.

My interest in law enforcement, combined with a freshly minted driver’s license and some maps, and I was off and running. My first ever vehicle I owned myself was a used 1990 Chevy S-10, and I put over 45,000 miles on it in one year traveling across northeast Ohio, northwestern Pennsylvania and western New York.

How did the regular contributors to the NPCA find each other?

The universal answer I’ve gotten when I asked the guy was, “I was searching for pictures on the internet, and I got a link to your site.” That works for me! From nothing, we’ve gone to the top (or at least near the top depending on the search term) of Bing, Google and Yahoo searches for “police car photos.” Several of the contributors are current or retired law enforcement, but people like myself, Daryl McGrath, Keith Belk and Joe Muscarella are civilians. It’s produced interesting super clusters of photos as people tend to complete out their county and then the bug catches and you see a radiating pattern of coverage from there.

I live in southwest Pennsylvania and the majority of my self-shot photos are from that area. I have a senior contributor in Florida, Louisiana, Nebraska, South Carolina, Eastern Pennsylvania, Missouri and Tennessee. As such we have abnormally high coverage in and around those places. With the exception of a couple of them, I’ve met them all in real life, and I have become good friends with all of them.

I noticed you take submissions. What is the most memorable car photo you have received from a reader?

I like to say we specialize in unobtainium. I love photos of departments that no one has seen and perhaps no one even knew exists. Military/Government departments that are found off their “reservations” are fun too. Through various trips to D.C. people have found photos for the Office of Naval Intelligence, Defense Logistics Agency, NSA Police and so on.

I also really enjoy those off-the-beaten-path agencies. Most people know that almost every county has a county sheriff and the county seat itself has a department. However, there are a wide variety of police for colleges, schools, hospitals, airports and parks out there.

When you aren’t busy adding cars to the NPCA data base, what do you do in your free time?

I have free time? When did that start? I still photograph new police vehicle of course. It’s a lively time in the hobby right now with the body changes in the Charger, the new Caprice and of course new Police Interceptor and Police Interceptor Utility from Ford. These vehicles are uniformly changed from their predecessors and they are forcing agencies to really research their purchases. We’re seeing a lot of new design schemes as a result.

Beyond that I still enjoy building scale model cars and trucks, chasing after my two (soon to be three) children, and helping my wife wrangle that brood.

Pictured is one of James’ picks of the week. A Cherokee County, S.C. Sheriff’s Department vehicle.

Of all the cars you’ve taken pictures of, which is your favorite and why?

While advances in technology certainly have made the hobby easier with GPS, websites with addresses, state databases of agencies, etcetera–I remember plotting out the trips into counties I had never been to by checking the blue pages of the local telephone directory, getting out a AAA road map and trying to find the local state police/highway patrol barracks or the county 911 dispatch center to double check my list against what really existed.

Then it was a lot of driving in circles in little towns trying to find the department or a car out on patrol. In a way, those first couple years of photos using a Cannon Sure-Shot 35mm camera are my favorites since there was a lot of exploring and road trip goodness in those excursions. It’s a little mechanical these days having preplanned GPS routes for the fastest routes.

The NPCA’s goal is to represent vehicles from every law enforcement agency in the U.S.A. What made you set this goal?

A lot of other sites accept whatever photos get sent to them, which caused them to sort of have a wandering focus and in some cases a complete lack of organization for the end user. Realizing there are nearly 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S. seemed like a reasonable lifetime goal considering how much restructuring of agencies gets done as they obtain new vehicles.

As of this article, we’re about 800 agencies from hitting that magical 50% number. Having half of the police departments in the country is of course a major milestone, and something I hope I can get up onto the site before March rolls around for our 10th anniversary.

I think a lot of it also has to do with my obsession with checking that complete box on a county.

There’s more than just automobiles on the site! Check out this 2004 BMW RT-100 from El Segundo, Calif.

Duff went on to say that in the last 18 months, they have seen the creation of several websites that cater to agencies in specific states, such as the South Carolina Police Database, that are utilizing the NPCA format. “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” says Duff, “and specifically since one of our larger contributors is part of that site. I’ve advised them as they’ve grown.”

Over 32,988 photos have been uploaded as of Nov. 8, 2012. Is your county represented in the archives?

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