While take-home police, fire and municipal cars are still the trend, the practice isn’t standard in all municipalities.
Major Derek Towle of the Greenfield Police Department in Greenfield, Ind., said there are definite advantages and disadvantages to take-home police vehicles. While they can deter crime in a neighborhood by offering a visible “presence,” and improve response time for officers who need to be at the scene of an incident quickly, they’re also a huge advertisement for potential harassment from those who may want to vandalize a cop car; or well-meaning neighbors who want assistance at all hours.
“Ultimately, I think there are more advantages,” he said. “It makes a huge difference in our response time, especially those in specialized departments who have a lot of technical equipment that they have to carry around. Without those vehicles, you might have to drive past the accident to get your gear and then go back wasting precious time. Having all of your gear allows you to respond faster and have what you need when you get there.”
Officers who have take-home vehicles are expected to act “on call” at all times, though, and respond to any accident or incident scene if necessary. That responsibility could simply entail calling for help when someone’s private vehicle breaks down, or taking an active role when an emergency arises. Towle said that while he is lucky to drive around in a car and not have to pay for the fuel, it’s not the car he uses when he wants to get somewhere quickly.
“Everyone tends to slow down and drive a little more carefully when they notice a police car behind them,” he said. “They don’t always know when you’re off duty.”
The car perk is usually part of the contract negotiated by a police union and the city or state or federal department. The entities haggle over the cost of maintenance of the vehicle, which is usually shared by the officer, and the department. Some police departments invest in a fuel co-op to keep its costs as low as possible, while others have voted to implement a fuel surcharge whenever gas prices reach a certain level. Still other municipalities, such as Naperville, Ill., which has no residency requirement for its officers, do not use take home cars at all.
“It wouldn’t be advantageous to us when so many of our officers live 20-30 miles out of town,” said Sgt. Gregg Bell, public information officer for the City of Naperville Police Department. “I can see why some municipalities do though. Just that presence in the community is a crime deterrent.”
While some critics have suggested that take-home cars are an expense taxpayers can’t afford in difficult economic times, a study reported by the Collins County Deputies Association in Texas determined that take-home police cars reduce the cost of buying and maintaining government vehicles and are an investment that pays. The vehicles typically last three times longer than their counterparts in a shared pool, because their operators tend to have a sense of ownership and responsibility to the vehicle that helps offset additional costs.
Towle said that in his 22 years with the Greenfield department, he has seen big improvements thanks to the availability of take-home vehicles. A decade ago, the department would have been limited in the event of a major incident. But just a few years back, when many of the city’s streets flooded, 20-25 cars came out to block intersections and direct traffic without taking away from the cars on patrol.
“It was wonderful to have a response like that,” he said. “Making those cars available is a huge boost to any community.”
By JULIE YOUNG