"I don't believe it! There's actually room in these cars! Why, I can sit here; I can put my briefcase next to me, and I even have room for my partner!" That's what my partner exclaimed at the end of a shift back in the early '80s.
That day, the department ran out of patrol cars and we had to make do with a detective car-a 1974 Plymouth Satellite. The Satellite was an intermediate-sized car, in an era of full-sized patrol cars from Ford, Dodge, and Plymouth. But to us that Satellite seemed huge, especially compared to the "mid-sized" (read "small") Chevrolet Malibu that we were routinely scrunched into. Police equipment back then consisted of a cage, police radio, and control panel with maybe a scanner and handheld radar gun.
That old Malibu was positively empty compared to modern patrol units. Today, it seems that the electronic equipment in our cars is reproducing at will. Mobile data terminals, laptop computers, cellular fax machines, printers, dash-mounted radar, lidar, global positioning systems, cellular telephones, rechargeable flashlights, video cameras, and additional weaponry are just some of the things we haul around all shift.
And if you feel cramped, you're not alone. The equipment definitely is taking occupant space away from our cruisers.
Aside from providing transportation and a means to capture lawbreakers, the police vehicle serves a multitude of functions. It's an office, a shelter against inclement weather, a temporary interview room or jail, a lunchroom, a tactical barrier against other vehicles whizzing by at the scene of an accident, cover and concealment against an armed adversary, and a desk for writing citations.
Police work traditionally has dictated a large vehicle. This is due to the fact that police officers need a reasonable amount of comfort to endure an 8-hour (or longer) shift, and back seat space is necessary to hold prisoners. Plus, a lot of trunk area is needed for equipment and supplies. Unfortunately, the large sedan-the full-sized Ford Custom or Dodge Polara of the mid-'60s and early '70s-are a thing of the past.
Currently the Ford Crown Victoria is the largest sedan available in a dedicated police configuration. The Crown Vic's chief rivals in the police market-the Chevrolet Impala and Dodge Intrepid-are slightly smaller, with about 4 percent less interior space.
Crown Vics are large by today's standards, but they are only about the size of the intermediate sedans from the late 1960s. That wouldn't be so bad if police equipment and personnel had shrunk accordingly, but they haven't.
The SUV Option
Faced with this space crunch, many departments are taking a serious look at adopting sport utility vehicles as patrol vehicles. Currently law enforcement use of SUVs is generally limited to special purposes-K-9, crime scene investigations, search and rescue, commercial vehicle enforcement, SWAT, and supervision.
Unfortunately, SUVs are not really an option. While several pursuit-certified SUVs were available in the past, currently there is only one pursuit-certified SUV available: GM's Hummer, a vehicle that's way too exotic in price and size for patrol duty. Some departments are pressuring Detroit, and we may see pursuit-certified SUVs in a couple of years from Chevrolet and maybe Dodge.
Some departments may also be attracted to the stretched version of the Crown Victoria, which offers a larger rear seat area. But you need to be aware that this vehicle is intended primarily for taxi applications and is not pursuit-certified, as it is only available with the single-exhaust engine. It's also not available with police suspension components or other heavy-duty police modifications.
The electronics in police vehicles have come a long way from the power-hungry, heat-generating vacuum tube devices of the '40s and '50s. The transistor and later the integrated circuit have allowed manufacturers to make electronic components smaller and yet only consume a fraction of the power that was once required.
However, unless there is a major breakthrough in electronics, electrical components are unlikely to become much smaller than the current state-of-the-art. And while the electronic components in modern patrol cars are much smaller than they were in the Eisenhower years, there are now many more of them that have to be mounted in smaller cars.
A popular new solution to this problem is to integrate the equipment into one central computer/video display. In such a system, computer-aided dispatch, videocamera display, global positioning, and displays for various databases, e-mail, and reports are displayed on one screen-rather than having separate displays, or an extra laptop computer in the car.
Air Bag Clearance
Creature comforts are not the only worry for today's police officers in cramped, equipment-packed patrol units. In 1994, passenger-side air bags were mandated on all passenger cars. This posed the problem of where to mount the police gear without it getting in the way if the air bags were deployed. This is no minor concern. Believe me, a laptop computer or radar gun striking you at 200 mph will hurt.
Because of passenger-side air bags, manufacturers made bucket seats standard on police package vehicles, with the suggestion that the police equipment be mounted in a console between the seats. Another solution was to mount the equipment in an overhead console. And some departments even decided to deactivate the passenger-side air bags.
To combat this problem and ensure officer safety, each of the manufacturers publishes guidelines as to where police equipment may be placed so that it won't turn into a projectile during an airbag deployment. It is strongly suggested that agencies or contractors that install equipment in police vehicles abide by these guidelines.
In addition, Chevrolet, Dodge, and Ford offer "turnkey" police vehicles. That means these manufacturers have arranged for subcontractors to pre-install and/or pre-wire a good portion of the law enforcement equipment-spotlights, prisoner cages, light bars, and sirens. The department only needs to install graphics, radios, computers, weapons, and the other equipment that is unique to that particular department. This saves a considerable amount of time required in prepping vehicles for service and is covered under the regular factory warranty. Additionally, manufacturer-endorsed equipment installation should prevent equipment from being damaged or being flung into the vehicle's occupants in the event of an airbag deployment.
Proper vehicle selection and equipment installation can increase officer safety and comfort, and additionally provide the officer with more usable room in his or her rolling "office."
Sitting in the driver's seat of a police car equipped with the TACNET system may give some people a distinct sense of "didn't I see this on the 'Jetsons'" deja vu. No, the car doesn't fly, nor does it fold into a suitcase. But it's definitely loaded with goodies that should be in a science fiction movie.
Created by Visteon, a Dearborn, Mich.-based supplier of auto components, TACNET was designed to eliminate clutter from police cars and improve officer safety and efficiency. The system essentially replaces the radio, laptop, and mobile data terminal found in most patrol cars with a central control and display unit mounted in the vehicle's dash.
Officers can send commands to the unit through three interfaces: by touching the display screen, by pressing buttons on the "control pod" mounted at seat level to the driver's right, and by speaking to the unit. In addition, the driver can view data from the terminal and radar readouts on a heads-up display (HUD).
Incorporated into TACNET are the capabilities of some of the leading manufacturers of wireless software and hardware and police equipment. TACNET includes Aether Systems' PacketCluster, allowing officers to perform voice-activated NCIC queries and read the results on the HUD without taking their eyes from the road.
Another Visteon partner in the TACNET project is Federal Signal whose technology was used to integrate the lightbar and siren into the system. Radio technology for TACNET's integrated voice and data communications was provided by M/A-COM. Wireless connectivity for TACNET was provided by Padcom's Wireless Data Connectivity Suite. The Padcom solution lets officers access important information without worrying about which wireless network is in coverage.
Kustom Signal is another technology partner in TACNET, supplying the video system and the radar.
Visteon says it expects to start selling the TACNET system to agencies by summer of next year.
For more information, www.visteon.com.
Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks
One way that some departments are fighting the space war is by refurbishing their older and larger sedans. A popular choice for this rejuvenation is the Caprice, a police car that Chevrolet ceased producing in 1997.
Successful refurbishing depends on several variables, so all vehicles considered for refurbishing should be carefully selected and inspected to see if they are viable candidates for extended service.
Before deciding to refurbish a car, make sure it wasn't constantly under repair when it was in service and that it was never involved in a major collision. Also, pay special attention to the frame components-especially if the car has been run on salted roads. Refurbishing a car with bent, cracked, or corroded frame components can be a dangerous practice.
Another consideration is cost. The cost to refurbish a police vehicle should not exceed half the cost of a new cruiser.
Typical refurbishing includes renewing the engine and transmission with factory-reconditioned or new components. Suspension, steering, differential, and brake systems should also receive the same meticulous attention. After the mechanical work is completed the upholstery is renewed and the vehicle is repainted.
Remember, not all vehicle refurbishers do the same caliber of work. Before contracting with an unfamiliar refurbisher, investigate the company to see if previous customers have been satisfied by its work.