When it comes to patrol cars, some law enforcement agencies have always wrestled with a variety of decisions. Ford? Chevy? Dodge? How fast? Marked or unmarked?
Now a new decision some agencies are making about their patrol cars is changing the way that officers treat their cars and the way that agencies treat their officers. Today, one of the most important decisions that an agency has to make about its patrol cars is whether to permit its officers to take the vehicles home and use them as both rolling police offices and personal transportation.
Arriving at the answer to this question is not easy. There are many factors and concerns that an agency's administrators must consider before letting an officer take home a police car. And there are advantages and disadvantages to take-home cars.
Saving Money, Saving Time
Patrol cars are often run 24 hours a day, seven days a week. With the wide range of driving conditions and demands placed upon them, keeping these black-and-whites clean and in good repair is likewise a full-time job.
In a bid to establish and maintain greater accountability for patrol car operation and upkeep, many agencies have found that when officers are assigned their own take-home patrol cars, they tend to be more responsible with them. This results in lower maintenance and repair costs. The practice also leads to increased visibility of police officers in the community and on the roadways.
There's another benefit to take-home patrol cars. They can help an agency fill its ranks. Police departments that offer take-home patrol cars often use them as recruiting tools. For example, the Website of the Pierce County (Wash.) Sheriff's Department promotes the availability of take-home cars for all deputy sheriffs as a "perk." Take-home cars have even been an acknowledged factor in why some officers left one agency for another.
Another great advantage to take-home cars for some agencies is that they no longer have to maintain facilities for storing patrol cars. They save money by not having to build secure parking areas.
But perhaps the biggest advantage of take-home patrol cars is the ready deployment of an off-duty officer to critical incidents. Because an officer has his or her gear and a car at all times, he or she can roll with a few minutes notice. The result is that off-duty officers can respond more rapidly to hostage, barricade, or active-shooter situations.
Of course, there are also substantial negative concerns about take-home cars.
One that every administrator worries about is the legal exposure presented by take-home patrol cars. Does a police department run the risk of additional liability if an officer becomes involved in a traffic collision in a take-home car while off duty? This is something that each agency will have to address with its city or county manager and its legal counsel.
An even greater concern that some agencies don't recognize is the security of the car and its contents, including gear, uniforms, and guns. Last year in Garland, Texas, a tactical officer's patrol car was broken into. While the thief did not get any firearms, he did score a ballistic vest and other equipment.
The Garland burglary was not an isolated case. In December, a car burglar hit the jackpot when he smashed through the back window of a Dallas officer's take-home police patrol vehicle, pried through the backseat, and gained access to the trunk. Inside was $6,000 worth of equipment, including a high-caliber rifle, ammunition, a heavy-duty ballistic vest, and a SWAT uniform.
Similar scenarios have been played out elsewhere, with patrol car burglars and patrol car thieves gaining everything from access codes to department facilities, to names and addresses of police officers and contacts, to drug distributor lists and other documents that might compromise ongoing investigations and their investigators.
These days, with more and more agencies in the process of issuing patrol rifles such as AR-15s, the possible presence of serious firepower in take-home patrol cars is a growing concern. This is why some agencies that use take-home cars have policies prohibiting officers from leaving firearms in their patrol cars. Such a policy offered some solace to Deputy Chief Marion DeFillo of the New Orleans Police Department when several of his department's cars were burglarized.
Even when they don't contain guns, stolen patrol cars can be a major hazard for the public. Bad guys can use them to impersonate police officers. For example, a Florida teen borrowed his father's marked patrol car and used it to pull over a car driven by his estranged girlfriend.
Of course, the greatest fear regarding stolen patrol cars is what happens if they fall into the hands of really bad guys. In Israel and Saudi Arabia, public safety vehicles have been stolen and then employed in terrorist attacks.