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Grand Theft Cop Car

Police vehicles are more vulnerable to thieves than you might think.

October 01, 2003  |  by Mark Kariya

Procedures and Precautions

Consequently, there is certainly a need to secure vehicles from unauthorized use, whether they're attended or not. But what can the individual officer or department do?

There are a number of solutions that agencies are using to combat theft of police vehicles.

The simplest and least expensive option is establishing procedures that require officers to treat the vehicles like the average civilian would his or her personal car. That means the officer is required to lock it on the way out and take the key.

For some agencies, this simple solution is impractical, but others can live with it. "I'm old-fashioned; I turn the cruiser off and lock it," says an Ohio officer.
Of course, it's hard to leave a vehicle running and prevent battery drain when you use this security procedure.

But a Colorado officer offered this solution to the problem. "Since we have take-homes, I just have multiple copies of my car key. I leave one in the ignition when I'm working so I can leave the car running when necessary and not have any problem locking the car. And I always hit the car lock button on the way out."

One Arizona agency offers another variation on this concept by ordering its vehicles keyed alike. The standard procedure is for officers to call when leaving the vehicle, requesting that backup secure it, often by moving it. Obviously, having all units keyed alike makes this possible, even if the first responder leaves the key in the running car and locks the doors.

Technology to the Rescue

High-tech theft prevention devices essentially take one of two approaches to making life hard on car thieves. They stop the theft or they help the authorities track the vehicle once it has been stolen.

Some departments install GPS-linked tracking systems or LoJack devices to keep track of vehicles, but this rarely prevents them from being taken in the first place. These locate the vehicle after a theft. They can also be useful should an officer be unable to communicate his location (due to injury, radio malfunction, lack of time, etc.) and need assistance.

LoJack and similar technologies are great, but they fail to address the potential for an unauthorized person getting into the vehicle and driving it away, especially when the engine is left running with the doors unlocked. Stopping this sort of problem requires a bit more sophisticated solution, and fortunately, there are several available.

To prevent theft during those times when the unit is parked and not in use, many agencies have adopted battery or fuel cut-off systems. Not only are these systems easy to install, but they are actually ideal for modern patrol cars. The on/off switch is easy to "hide" among the many switches so prevalent in today's patrol vehicles.

But what about a vehicle that's unattended and running? One solution is a technology that's also a fairly simple job for any professional mechanic: the brake light kill switch

"Our city garage installed brake light kill switches in our city vehicles," says an Alabama officer. "They work great and an added bonus is that with the brake lights cut off, the car will not come out of "Park," even when running. We've started using this as an impromptu anti-theft device so that we can leave the AC running while on a call and still have a car to come back to."

Of course, brake light kill switches only work on later-model vehicles that require the driver to step on the brake before the automatic transmission can be shifted out of Park.

Another device that protects the vehicle from unauthorized use even when the engine is running is the Secure-Idle. In use, an officer need only press a button, place the transmission in "Park," turn the key to what normally would be the "Off" position, then remove the key. The engine keeps running and all of the vehicle's accessories will remain on, yet any unauthorized attempt to step on the brake or move the shift lever out of Park cuts all electrical power, rendering the vehicle immobile. It can also be set up to trigger an optional alarm.

Deactivating the Secure-Idle system requires that the key be put back into the ignition and turned to the "On" position. It is available for practically any vehicle since the company offers it for the civilian market and can custom build systems. Secure-Idle does stipulate, however, that its technicians must do the install, especially in the custom systems. The cost ranges from $109 to $129 per vehicle.

Using the Secure-Idle system consumes minimal time and ensures the officer takes the key out, reducing the likelihood of locking himself out of the vehicle.

Tremco Police Products produces a Police Package Anti-theft System that works in a similar manner to the Secure-Idle. Available for practically any police service vehicle, it plugs into the standard electrical wiring harness and then requires the installation of a few switches.

Once installed, the Tremco system activates whenever the transmission is placed into Park; no other switch needs to be pressed. Whether the engine is running or not, the shift lever cannot be shifted out of Park unless a hidden foot switch is pressed, sounding a small buzzer that indicates deactivation of the anti-theft system.

For those times when civilians might need to operate the vehicle (the mechanic at a local garage, a car wash attendant, etc.), the Tremco system features a hidden bypass switch that turns the entire system off so the car operates normally. All you have to do is turn off the system when you turn the car over to a citizen, and turn it on again when you take the car back.

Tremco claims its system usually takes 15 minutes or less to install, and it can easily be done by anyone with normal tools and some mechanical aptitude. The cost is $89 per vehicle.

When you consider the potential liability-not to mention the embarrassment-of stolen law-enforcement vehicles, installing an anti-theft device of some sort becomes a no-brainer.

Of course, there is one type of patrol vehicle that seems to be immune to theft: the K-9 unit. For some reason, most people think twice about trying to heist a car that has a built-in set of teeth accompanied by vicious barking. But unless you're one of the small percentage of officers who turn out each day with a dog, you need to take precautions and consider technology that can prevent your car from leaving without you.

Securing Motorcycles

Motor officers are also vulnerable to the problem of patrol-vehicle theft, but it's much less common. This may be due to the dynamics of the motor officer's duties and the vehicle itself.

After all, a motorcycle's inherent attitude is lying on its side; a two-wheeled vehicle cannot stand upright on its own. That means a motor officer must put the kickstand down unless he's under fire and opts to lay it down to use as cover.

So the motor officer already has one step that must be performed fairly deliberately when it comes to parking the bike. So he shouldn't forget to take his key with him.

Also, he shouldn't leave the engine running. There are no air conditioners or heaters to keep running on a motorcycle. And the air-cooled powerplants on the majority of bikes in police service are not designed to idle while motionless. What that means is that leaving the engine running on your motorcycle will accomplish nothing, and it will make the engine overheat.

For the motor officer, there is no anti-theft system that works quite like the ones available for patrol cruisers or other vehicles with automatic transmissions. One reason is the fact that no motorcycles in current police service utilize automatic transmissions; they're all manual-shift units. About the only bikes with automatic-style transmissions tend to be scooters.

Police motorcycles are much less prone to theft than cars, but some agencies are taking precautions.

Many of the current anti-theft systems targeted at the civilian motorcycle market are locking devices that, while effective, also tend to be somewhat cumbersome and time-consuming to employ. There's little chance the average motor officer will take the time to put one of these on while making a routine traffic stop, and there's no chance of him or her locking the bike during an emergency response.

Probably the best the officer can plan for is an alarm system. Most will trigger a loud horn or buzzer if the bike is moved. Some incorporate even more features. The $219 Airitronix CYL-300ex sounds its alarm if anyone approaches a predetermined perimeter around it. It also offers a paging option to notify you when the alarm is triggered.

The $149.95 Armed Guard Pager system has many of the same features as the Airitronix alarm. Installation of either requires some mechanical aptitude and a few tools.

But even if your motorcycle isn't protected by a lock or alarm, consider this: We've been unable to verify a single instance of a police motorcycle being ridden away by joy riders. And that's more than we can say about police horses-but that's another story.

For More Information


Armed Guard


Tremco Police Products

Mark Kariya is a freelance writer and photographer whose duties over the past 24 years have included vehicle evaluation. To date, the only vehicle theft he's suffered has been a bicycle.

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