Ford is embroiled in an internal dispute over whether to continue producing vehicles for U.S. law enforcement in light of the broader national debate over police brutality.
As many as 100 Ford employees have raised the question in letters to senior executives, as well as during a corporate town hall held online, several company insiders said, confirming a report that first appeared in the Detroit Free Press.
Were Ford to pull out of the specialized market it could have significant ramifications, as the Detroit automaker currently produces about two-thirds of the vehicles used by U.S. law enforcement agencies.
The issue of police brutality, especially when it comes to the handling of minority communities, has triggered explosive debates and weeks of protests across America since the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minnesota.
Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford and CEO Jim Hackett issued a public statement last month declaring that the carmaker “cannot turn a blind eye" to systemic racism, nor "accept some sense of ‘order’ that’s based on oppression.” Detroit automakers, in general, have taken a number of steps to respond to the crisis. General Motors donated $10 million to groups promoting racial justice and social inclusion, including the NAACP.
But that has, if anything, accelerated the internal debate. A letter circulated by some Ford employees, and first obtained by technology website The Verge, called on the company to “cease development, production, and sale of all custom police vehicles and products.”
Ford has long been the leader in the production of police vehicles, a modified version of its Explorer SUV today the overwhelming best-seller. The company recently came up with modifications that it said could be used to reduce the risk of officers becoming infected by COVID-19, via a system that briefly heats the interior to a temperature believed to kill the virus.
In a statement e-mailed to NBC News on Friday, Ford made it clear it was not planning to pull out of the police market.
“We are proud Ford vehicles are the first choice of first responders, including with police,” it said, adding that, “We will continue to support these customers because good law enforcement agencies and officers play a critical positive role in our communities, but safety and equal treatment must be inclusive of all, everywhere.”
The statement echoed the contents of a letter Ford CEO Hackett sent to employees on July 1. The e-mail emphasized the company’s position that “there is no room for the systemic repression and racism that have been exhibited by law enforcement encounters gone wrong. We’ve said clearly that Black Lives Matter and I am personally driving a review of our Diversity and Inclusion rituals, practices and behaviors. We do believe strongly that more transparency and accountability is required in police operations.”
Hackett’s letter also stressed that law enforcement officers “play an extraordinarily important role in the vitality and safety of our society. Our world wouldn’t function without the bravery and dedication of the good police officers who protect and serve.”
While some Ford employees have been pressing for the automaker to abandon the police vehicle market, others are proposing alternatives, calling on the company to sell vehicles only to law enforcement agencies that have undergone reforms. Another proposal would see Ford equip all police vehicles with automatically activating cameras.
Many police departments already equip their vehicles with cameras that can be switched on during a traffic stop or other incident.
Ford did not comment on whether it might restrict sales or take steps to modify its police vehicles.