An off-duty police officer on his way home was the first to spot a suspected bank robber driving through Dalton, Ga., in December. The second officer to arrive had just left home to start work.
Both officers were driving patrol cars because of the Dalton department’s take-home policy.
“Had we not had an assigned vehicle program, we would not have probably caught this guy,” said Dalton Police Chief Jason Parker.
Allowing officers to drive patrol cars home is a common practice in Tennessee and Georgia, and some law enforcement administrators fiercely have defended the program in the face of rising fuel prices.
Despite gasoline prices about $3.50 a gallon, police administrators are adamant that take-home cars actually save money by cutting the amount of time cars are on the road and by giving officers a sense of personal ownership.
For more savings, police agencies are encouraging officers to idle patrol cars less and to park in high visibility areas more.
A study prepared by the Dalton Police Department in December found that maintenance costs for take-home cars is about 3 cents a mile, compared to 7 cents a mile for pooled patrol cars. Annual mileage also was cut by more than half by allowing officers to take cars home rather than share vehicles.
“We don’t want to be penny-wise and pound-foolish and eliminate the program,” Chief Parker said.
But pennies are being pinched as many predict a summer of $4-a-gallon gasoline.
The City Council in Cleveland, Tenn., set a goal for departments to lower energy consumption by 15 percent before June 2010. Paring back the city take-home car program may be part of the plan.
A resolution awaiting council review would require employees to commute five days per month in a personal vehicle, or reimburse the city $15 each month.
City Council member Richard Banks said that proposal will be heard along with an energy consultant’s report May 12.
“The city of Cleveland, through its mayor, council and its conscientious city staff, (is) doing everything it can to address the energy crisis we are all faced with, including the high costs of gas and diesel that powers our city vehicles,” Mr. Banks said.
“There are benefits to (police) take-home vehicles, which have to be considered when we are considering a reduction or an elimination.”
Bradley County, Tenn., Sheriff Tim Gobble this year has had a high-profile fight for fuel funding with the County Commission. He said the take-home program — which is limited to officers who live in the county — is paramount to public safety.
“Unfortunately, crime and mishap don’t punch a clock or keep regular hours. Law enforcement and emergency (personnel) must be on the job 24/7, 365 days a year, without exception,” Sheriff Gobble wrote April 28 on his Web site, bradleysheriff.com.
Catoosa County, Ga., Sheriff Phil Summers’ solution to fuel budgeting is limiting officers to 200 gallons a month. Officers who violate the policy are reprimanded, but Sheriff Summers said that is rare.
He said it doesn’t keep officers from taking their cars home.
“The officers who live farther away from the sheriff’s office, they may burn a little more, so they have to make the decision to either purchase gas to put in the vehicle themselves or take a chance on going over and (temporarily) losing their take-home privilege,” Sheriff Summers said.
Sheriff Summers said, “There is a lot of variance” for emergencies and hectic months. But he said the fuel limit encourages officers to park in high-traffic areas or patrol neighborhoods at slow speeds to reduce fuel consumption.
“That sounds like not a lot of gas, but when you figure in their days off on 12-hour shifts, it’s very reasonable,” Sheriff Summers said.
The Georgia State Patrol is asking troopers to reduce their time on the road by 25 percent and increase stationary work, such as road checks and radar speed detection, according to The Associated Press. The Tennessee Highway Patrol hasn’t taken any similar measures, spokesman Mike Browning said Wednesday.
Dayton, Tenn., Police Chief Chris Sneed said he is encouraging officers to limit their gas usage by idling their patrol cars less. He said many officers are in the habit of leaving their cars running unnecessarily.
The Dayton Police Department’s fuel budget is expected to increase this year from $47,000 to $70,000, he said.
“You have to get used to using your work vehicle like your own,” Chief Sneed said. “I don’t get out and leave my car running for 15 to 20 minutes while I run in the house. I cut off my personal vehicle every chance I get.”