Faced with shrinking budgets and uncertain financial futures, many departments have started to keep vehicles in service for longer periods of time. Although this may seem like a cost-saving measure, there are often long-term costs that need to be considered. Cops telling fleet managers that new cars are good is like telling them that vanilla tastes like vanilla. I thought it would be better to use this space to give you some points to consider before decisions are made that could be much more costly in the long run.
Cop cars wear out, and they do so much faster than the typical street car. It doesn’t take much to realize that the constant demands placed on the engine, drive train and suspension by police work will require the replacement of parts on a more frequent basis.
But that’s only part of the story. There are many other components, such as electrical systems, body integrity and suspension systems that deteriorate over time, compromising their reliability. Items like shock absorbers, suspension bushings, control arms, and wiring harnesses wear quickly, but are rarely replaced. Over time, this makes for a degradation of performance dynamically and systemically.
Then there are the big parts. The simple fact is that old patrol cars are based on old designs, which means transmissions, engines, brakes, alternators, etc. wear out much more quickly. Each time something breaks, there’s additional cost to the department in parts, vehicle downtime and loss of officer productivity while having to address the situation. This has to be added to the overall cost of owning the car, and because high-mileage cars are out of warranty, the department has to take the hit for repair bills.
In the past, it wasn’t uncommon for agencies to mileage out their cars at 60–80K, but these days, there are patrol cars on the road that have more than 200K on their odometers. These vehicles, no doubt, have had transmissions and/or engines replaced along the way, which have added thousands of dollars to their operating costs.
Factor in, also, that a 200K patrol car effectively has double the real mileage on it due to idling time, plus the usual cop abuse, and the picture grows even bleaker. If you think that’s the exception, think again. Is there a way to keep these cars going? Of course. It’s called spending lots of money. By contrast, newer vehicles come with two distinct advantages in the maintenance department—new parts and warranties.
Things that don’t go wrong at 75K miles in a patrol vehicle can go really bad in a 90K+ vehicle. Case in point: I know an officer who’s first patrol car arrived in the lot with 90K miles on it. During one of the first times he ran code, the automatic overdrive expired, causing the car to go into the shop for weeks and the officer into a spare that was even worse. In the end, the car probably cost the department way more than it was worth, plus the biggest issue was that the reliability issues prevented the officer, in some cases, from making it to the call.
Imagine a situation where your local mayor or councilman was being robbed, and the responding officer ended up stranded on the way. The parking lot at the station would quickly fill with new cars. So, pose that scenario to them. You must find ways to convince the line-item people that reliability is critical in public service. New cars offer that.
The most serious pay now or pay later scenario presented with older cars is the safety aspect, both passive and active.
Let’s look at a passive safety example. Many older patrol cars only have two front-facing airbags, whereas the new patrol cars in 2011 and beyond have side curtain airbags, as well. This could be critical in preventing or reducing injuries to officers in angled collisions. The cost to the department and the officer in terms of injuries, hospitalization and recovery, not to mention the temporary or permanent loss of manpower, will assuredly end up being much, much higher than the cost would’ve been to purchase a newer patrol vehicle with better crush zones, more airbags and overall better occupant safety.
Active safety is also important. Older cars may have traction control, but they probably don’t. However, all emerging models from The Big Three have traction control, ABS, stability control and significantly better suspension tuning. Added up, this means safer cars and safer officers.
This is pretty simple. Take cops who pride themselves on being professional with their uniforms, equipment, demeanor and job duties (that should be all of you, of course) and stick them in a clapped out, wheezing old car with dings, leaky doors, peeling paint, broken seats and worse, and morale goes right in the toilet.
Command presence starts with visibility, and if cars are saying “jalopy” rather than “enforcer,” then public perception takes a hit. In an age where cops are being laid off, or furloughed, morale is already affected by influences greater than the department. If local governments can find ways to introduce newer and better vehicles to boost morale and show they care, that can go a long way. Pride goes a long way toward a better work environment.
Grant Programs: I know some of you might cringe, but the fact is, we could learn a lot from our firefighting cousins. They are masters at getting free stuff from grants. If your department doesn’t have a dedicated grant writer, find one. The feds are the only ones with money these days, so find a way to get some of it for new vehicles.
Ride-alongs: Some departments support ride-alongs. Some don’t. If you want a better chance at new equipment, then invite every councilperson, mayor, purchasing agent and bean counter on a ride-along. Let them see what it’s like to spend a day in a car they wouldn’t let a family member drive. Let them experience worn out shocks, seats, transmissions, creaks, groans and broken gear. Along the way, suggest how these things affect the ability to do your job and represent the city, county, state in its best light. People that need cops are voters, and giving local government people a real taste of what you’re dealing with could be the ticket to making your new Interceptor or Caprice a priority.
Get the right people to see new cars: Several years ago, I was approached by a group of state purchasing personnel who had never seen the Charger, much less sat in one. These were the people who signed the checks for new cars. I packed them all in the car and took them for a short ride around the facility. We spoke about all the reasons I felt the Charger would make a great vehicle. It wasn’t too long before the department got a lot of new Chargers. The point is, find the people who ultimately sign the checks, and make sure they experience first-hand what you want and why. It goes a long way.
We’re no longer the sacred cow of the past. We have to fight for funding, new equipment and vehicles. This means employing new strategies and talking points in hopes of ending or restricting the prevailing trend of leaving vehicles in the fleet well beyond their shelf life. When you consider that vehicles are the place where you stand to suffer the most harm, we have to find ways to get officers into newer, safer and more reliable vehicles.