published Tuesday, July 23rd, 2013

Mayor Andy Berke eases take-home police car policy

Mayor Andy Berke speaks during a news conference Monday in City Hall.
Mayor Andy Berke speaks during a news conference Monday in City Hall.
Photo by Shawn Paik.
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Calling it "misguided," Mayor Andy Berke on Monday moved to ease a city policy that governs take-home police cars and had angered officers since it was instituted in 2011.

Henceforth, Chattanooga police officers who live outside the city will only have to pay to drive department-issued vehicles from their homes to the city limits instead of to the police service center on Amnicola Highway.

"Part of addressing public safety is the morale in our police and fire departments," Berke said at a news conference. "For too long, we've had a misguided policy regarding our take-home cars."

Sgt. Tim Tomisek, president of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, applauded Berke's announcement and said he anticipates more officers will opt to participate in the program again.

"It's a huge morale booster because the mayor has openly worked with the different labor organizations as well as the chief to try and find a policy that's going to be fair to everybody instead of trying to reach into officers' pockets to dig out loose change," Tomisek said.

The city collected $190,000 in mileage reimbursements from officers last year, Berke said.

Of an estimated 460 officers employed by the department, 90 officers have take-home cars.

In 2010, when former Mayor Ron Littlefield pushed to start charging for take-home cars for all officers -- even those living in the city limits -- there were 351 officers with take-home cars.

Berke described the former administration's policy as "unreasonable."

"It has cost our police officers thousands of dollars per year. It's an example of what happens when you don't act by consensus," he said.

Archives show that the cost of the take-home car program was $1.5 million in 2010. A vast majority of officers opted to park department cars instead of paying to drive them home.

"Some officers were angry. Some stopped driving the cars," said Chattanooga Police Chief Bobby Dodd. "Some, I guess, didn't care one way or another. Even when the cars were allowed to be used free within the city, we had some officers, I guess, standing on principle just didn't drive the cars again."

Officers who live within the city limits don't pay to take home a department vehicle. Those who are Hamilton County residents had to pay to drive from their homes to the police department, 30 cents per mile.

Dodd said the change will not only improve morale but also will make officers more visible in neighborhoods.

"It puts a lot more police officers on the streets, more cars in the neighborhoods. It's a public safety issue, as well," he said.

Tomisek was one of the officers who kept his car and paid to drive to work after the changes were made a couple of years ago.

"I feel like as a police officer we have a responsibility and a duty to get to a scene quickly if we're called," he said. "To have to drive all the way to the Police Service Center to pick up a car to go to a crime scene I may have already passed -- I can't run emergency in my personal car and if they need me right then, it's a hassle on all of us.

"This is going to be a lot better."

Contact staff writer Beth Burger at 423-757-6406 or bburger@timesfreepress.com. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/abburger.

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