Electric vehicles allow Chattanooga police officers to interact with public

Electric vehicles allow Chattanooga police officers to interact with public

July 28th, 2011 by Andrew Pantazi in News

Sgt. Jeffrey Rearden rides a police mobility vehicle at Nightfall recently.

Photo by Angela Lewis/Times Free Press.

Chattanooga patrol officers Sgt. Roger Gibbens and Sgt. Jeffrey Rearden were patrolling south of the Walnut Street Bridge when they turned on Fourth Street. They climbed the hill with ease, leaving a bicyclist behind them gasping for air and grinding his teeth.

Gibbens and Rearden weren't on bikes or even on foot; they were using the Chattanooga Police Department's newest equipment: three-wheeled, upright vehicles.

Call it the Armored Segway, or perhaps the Wheeled RoboCop. Officially, they are Xtreme Green Police Mobility Vehicles, with bullet-resistant panels and electric motors that can hit 30 mph.

Each vehicle can go up to 80 miles on a single charge, the manufacturer says, but that's only under ideal conditions. Realistically, the vehicles go about 40 miles, which officers say is more than enough for patrolling Coolidge Park, the North Shore and downtown.

The police department bought three of the vehicles for $26,400 a few months ago to help officers on foot and bike patrols near downtown and the North Shore.

Bike- and foot-patrol officers don't just deal with disturbances or arrest public drunkards. They are the public relations team of the police, building trust by mingling with the public at Riverbend and Nightfall.

Lt. Eric Tucker heads the Bravo Unit, which includes bike and foot patrol. He said people feel more comfortable talking to an officer who is outside, rather than in a car.

"It puts you in the public mix," he said. "And you use all of your senses instead of just your sight [as in] a car."

Gibbens, a 16-year veteran of the Chattanooga Police Department, normally drives a patrol car in the East Brainerd area. He's been patrolling the park on Saturday nights to collect some extra cash.

Riding the Segway-like vehicle has more perks than sitting in a car, Gibbens said.

"I want a picture!" a girl shouts as Rearden and Gibbens ride on the Walnut Street Bridge.

"I want to get a picture on one!" a boy shouts as he races the girl to be the first to climb on.

Rearden and Gibbens let them have their pictures taken and gave the kids badge stickers.

"It's great. The young ones, they're taught, 'Hide, it's the police,'" Rearden said. "Riding these brings the kids to us in a positive way."

After the boy and girl were satisfied, 32-year-old Josh Hood stood on Gibbens' vehicle, playing with the buttons until he figured out how to turn the siren on. Then he laughed.

Seeing people excited to talk to police officers and asking to have photos taken is a big plus that Rearden said he doesn't see on normal patrol duties.

Police Chief Bobby Dodd said he was at a policing conference in Orlando last fall, when he saw the Xtreme Green Police Mobility Vehicles and knew their potential.

Dodd had compared different models from different companies, but ultimately, he chose Xtreme Green's because it could resist handgun fire, it could go in reverse, and it had enough power to go up hills. He bought the vehicles with leftover money from a federal grant the department annually receives to buy equipment.

Rearden has taught 35 officers to use the vehicles during 20-minute training sessions.

The vehicles, which plug into normal electric outlets, haven't been perfect. There have been problems with charging. When they broke down nearly two weeks ago, Tucker said he was worried about their stability. But after the company's Tennessee dealership sent a mechanic within a day to fix them, Tucker said he appreciated the customer support.

Dan Hyland, general manager of the Alexander Xtreme Green in Franklin, Tenn., said the vehicles are covered under a 12-month warranty. Since Chattanooga's is the first police department in the South to use the vehicles, the dealership has been offering extra support, he said.

While Gibbens and Rearden patrolled around Coolidge Park with ease, bike patrol officers were sweating it out, including one officer who was putting a new tube into one of his tires.

"Are you fixing your bike?" Rearden asked the officer.

"Yeah," Officer Rob Simmons responded. "That's what happens when you ride your bike and do hard work."

"That concept's foreign to me," Rearden fired back.