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WASHINGTON -- Rising gas prices are prompting some police departments to curb their cruisers for parts of their daily shifts and walk the beat instead -- a change that shrinks coverage areas and increases emergency response times.
Others are cutting back on a popular program that allows officers to take their vehicles home to boost police presence in neighborhoods.
"The unintended consequence of some fuel-saving solutions could be a reduction in police services," Justice Department policy analysts Karl Bickel and Deborah Spence said in a May bulletin to local law enforcement agencies.
Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, the nation's largest police officer organization, says, "Before you make any of these changes, there is good reason to think about what money might be saved vs. what you could be sacrificing in (crime) deterrence and response."
Among new policies beginning to take root:
*The Georgia Department of Public Safety is encouraging its 770 state troopers to reduce patrol time. Mileage reductions have ranged from 15% to 25% per month since January, Senior Trooper Larry Schnall says. In place of some patrols, troopers are conducting more radar surveillance or employing stationary checkpoints.
*In Fairfield County, Ohio, Sheriff Dave Phalen has dispatched a deputy in a golf cart to patrol one local community. Another golf cart is on the way, and he has ordered all deputies to shut down their patrol cars for 15 minutes every hour to walk the beat.
*In Anne Arundel County, Md., the sheriff's department has recalled 13 of the agency's 38 cruisers designated as take-home patrol vehicles. Officers assigned to those cars now must drive from their homes to headquarters to pick them up, Maj. Rick Tabor says.
These officials say that they've seen no change in crime since altering their policies or that it's too early to tell. Schnall says the public "is not in jeopardy."
Yet officials from at least 30 law enforcement agencies met with U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, recently to say rising fuel costs could compromise public safety. Brady says some departments are cutting patrols by using two officers per car instead of one.
Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a national advocacy group, says that "cities are having to eat this gas expense just when calls (for service) generally begin to rise in the summer." Service calls include police responses to burglar alarms, domestic violence and other crimes.
The Houston Police Department is spending millions of dollars to cover additional fuel costs. It has budgeted $8.6 million for fuel through the current fiscal year, which ends this month. Next year, those costs are expected to top $11 million, Chief Harold Hurtt says.
To control costs, Hurtt says, 2% of the department's unmarked fleet -- about 50 cars -- is being converted to hybrid vehicles. The chief also is considering expanding foot and bicycle patrols in the city -- strategies that come with different costs. "When you put people on foot, they can only cover small areas, and the response time is only as fast as they can run," Hurtt says.