Once the exclusive domain of the state patrols, cities and counties of all sizes now have these programs.
It’s been almost 11 years to the day since I last wrote about take-home police car programs in P&SN and, my, how times have changed! The word “unbelievable” comes to mind. The focus of that column was how departments were coping with the economy and the doom and gloom forecast of potential $5.00 a gallon gas prices. Well, that dire prediction never happened. Sure, we got close, and some cities off the beaten path may have actually seen these prices, but most of us were spared. A significant portion of that article dealt with take-home police car programs and the threat to them from escalating gas prices. But, those programs survived across this country and they have actually expanded by leaps and bounds throughout the U.S.
The War on Police
Eleven years later, we see those popular programs threatened once again, but NOT due to fuel prices. Some are due to financial concerns and penny-pinching, but the primary reason is because of the times in which we find ourselves living (and policing) – the war on cops in America. Only the uninformed or ignorant would deny the fact that our police are under attack. Fueled by the rhetoric of militant groups like Black Lives Matter, the “New” Black Panthers and others, we have seen fatal ambushes of on duty officers in cities like Baton Rouge and Dallas, whose mass murder of officers represents the single largest loss of police officers since 9-11. These murders are not restricted to the large cities, either. Recently, Law Enforcement (LE) heroes have been gunned down in the city where I grew up (Kansas City, KS) and two hours from where I live now, in rural Sebastian County, AR.
Starting with the fatal (justified) shooting of a criminal bully in Ferguson, MO, the outcry, protests, marches, and looting spread to many major U.S. cities while their cops were told to “stand down” and watch helplessly as chaos reigned. With the support of a handful of militant ministry and profane minority “spokesmen,” as well as paid protesters, the fuels of disorder were flamed until they were out of control and the assassinations of cops began. As with most civil disobedience, this started with cops on the lines being cursed at, insulted, spat upon, and having urine thrown on them. That soon escalated to rocks, bricks, firebombs, and guns. And, as expected in these scenarios, gangs immediately materialized from the shadows to take advantage of the chaos to smash storefronts and commence looting, often “styling” for the media cameras, proudly showing off their “entitlements.”
History Repeats Itself
Folks, I was a cop in the ’60s and ’70s and, for me, this is déjà vu. As I watched the looting and fires of Ferguson (and others), I thought, “My God, it’s happening again.” Like the larger cities across this country, we had disturbances which soon grew into full-blown riots and complete anarchy following the death of Martin Luther King and protests of the Vietnam War. I rode in commandeered city buses past blocks and blocks of looted and burned out businesses which looked like a scene from WWII. Kansas City (MO) firemen were instructed to let buildings burn because they came under fire whenever they responded. I, too, experienced sniper fire from rooftops. I rode in National Guard Jeeps and worked the 12 hour shifts. Our police academy was leveled by a terrorist’s bomb, either from the Black Panthers or the Weathermen, as they were both very active in the city and both claimed responsibility. What differentiated my experience from the hero officers of today is that we were NEVER ordered to “stand down.” Our arsonists, looters and snipers were dealt with like the felons they were and many paid with their lives.
Cops have always had targets on their backs – targeted by criminals, militants, overzealous prosecutors, the media, and (unfortunately) sometimes even their own bosses. But, the criminals are usually kept somewhat at bay by strict laws against assault and homicide of a peacekeeper, most resulting in death sentences. But, that is no longer a deterrent as cops are fair game to all who wish them harm.
Are Take-home Units Gone Forever?
I’ll put my soapbox away for a moment as I explain why I think these programs are threatened with extinction. While I have been concerned for some time about the constant threat our police officers face daily, this column was actually prompted by a city auditor’s report publicized nationally about my own alma mater, the Kansas City (MO) Police Department (KCPD) and their take-home program. I will have more on that study later, but first a brief discussion about these practices.
The Pros and Cons
Like most controversial programs, there are always two sides and a plethora of opinions from the informed and uninformed alike. Following are the popular arguments for and against police take-home programs.
PROS: 1) Crime reduction – the popular notion is that more marked units on the street will reduce crime and traffic violations and that marked units parked in residential driveways will keep neighborhoods safer and improve community relations. There are no studies to confirm or refute this, however. 2) Mileage on take-home units will accrue slower, reducing the rate of turnover. True. 3) Accountability for cleanliness, maintenance and damage is easier to enforce with one assigned driver instead of many. True. 4) Increased morale. Probably true. 5) It can be considered a financial benefit in lieu of raises. True. 6) Decreased response time. Probably true, but, again, no studies.
CONS: 1) They are a huge cost to implement. True. 2) It’s difficult to adequately secure and/or protect a unit at its residence without being garaged. True. 3) Vehicle expenses, such as fuel, maintenance, tires, and insurance will increase exponentially. True. 4) Police vehicle accidents will increase. True. 5) Unmarked and undercover cars driven to and from work and parked in residential neighborhoods are NO deterrent to crime or traffic issues whatsoever. True. 6) New vehicles are often assigned by seniority which can negatively affect morale. Probably true. 7) Some studies suggest that take-home cars should be claimed as supplemental income. True. 9) Police take-home units may cause friction with other city/county departments which lack them. Probably true.
The above is a summary of the basics of take-home programs; however, there are many variations. For example, some departments restrict take-home units to those members who live within the borders of their city or county limits, while others have no such requirements and simply rely on distance or response time as a criteria. Some agencies allow assigned vehicles to be used for off duty employment. Other agencies permit assigned vehicles to be used for personal errands and some even allow family members to accompany the officer/deputy/ trooper on these errands. About the only thing administrators agree upon is prohibiting vehicles from leaving their home state, except for official duties, such as extraditions or escorts.
Going, Going, Gone?
In my 2005 P&SN article, we looked at several departments and their take-home programs, one being Kansas City, MO. Since their city auditor’s report prompted this column, we’ll start there. When I last wrote about the KCPD eleven years ago, they had 843 vehicles in their fleet and less than 75 were take-home units. In addition to the command staff, the remainder were assigned to those personnel with 24 hour callback responsibility, i.e., most investigative units, SWAT, K-9, and undercover officers and nearly all were unmarked. Motorcycle officers were allowed to take their solos home during the months in which they rode.
Uniform sergeants and officers (patrol) were not included in the take-home program and shared marked units which were run 24-7. The vehicles taken home were restricted to residences within the city limits and were to be driven to and from work (or crime scenes) only. They were encouraged to transport employees in their units because of limited parking at headquarters and some other facilities.
Fast-forward to the 2015 audit where the KCPD had 922 total vehicles and 341 were taken home, growing from nine percent in 2005 to 37% in 2015. The ten year growth came from increased personnel and many new specialized units. The auditor calculated that the miles these vehicles were driven cost the city $1.5 million in fuel. Policies have also been expanded to allow family members and personal errand usage of the vehicles. The audit made several recommendations, some of which follow:
- The chief of police should determine how frequently each employee who has a
take-home car actually uses it for after-hours emergencies and whether that take-home car is truly necessary.
- The chief should evaluate the cost and propriety of using department vehicles for transport to off duty employment.
- With only 13% of the take-home vehicles being marked and 25% having KCPD license plates, the auditor recommended more cars should be marked and more unmarked cars should be identified with official license plates.
- The chief should evaluate whether to prohibit transporting nonemployees in these vehicles for nonbusiness purposes. The department countered that they have had no liability related issues from family members riding in take-home vehicles.
From Sea to Shining Sea
But, what about the rest of the country? Following is a quick look at LE agencies around the country – small and large – as we take the pulse of what’s happening with take-home programs.
Most state patrols allow take-home vehicles, including marked pursuit-rated vehicles for patrol and nonpursuit sedans for the remainder. Take-home vehicles are a must for many state troopers who cover large areas and are frequently called out at all hours for serious accidents. The Missouri State Highway Patrol restricts vehicles to official duties only.
Armstrong County, PA, has been ordered to reduce their take-home fleet by 75% due to fiscal constraints and to reduce operating costs. They will sell off the resulting overage of vehicles.
The Benton County, AR, Sheriff’s Department has take-home vehicles for all LE personnel, a combination of marked and unmarked units. They must live inside the county, but can use them for errands and with family. Their program recently came under scrutiny when a captain took his family on vacation to Florida in his assigned unmarked car.
The Fort Smith, AR, Police Department only allows the on-call detectives to have take-home cars.
Nassau County, NY, has been ordered to reduce their countywide take-home vehicle program from 506 to 282 units (44%) to reduce unnecessary expense and liability. An audit revealed that it cost them $60,000 for just 11 employees who live a “significant distance” outside the city.
The Oklahoma City, OK, Police Department has a take-home program, but family members are prohibited from riding in city vehicles.
The Pinellas County, FL, Sheriff’s Office has a huge take-home program for 100% of all of the LE personnel – 1400 marked units and 1200 nonpolice package units for administration and detectives. The vehicles are restricted to the county limits, but may be used on errands; however, the deputies are warned against hauling “large purchases.” I guess you won’t see any mattresses strapped to cruiser roofs.
The Springdale, AR, Police Department’s take-home program is named “Home Storage” and is department-wide. Personnel are not required to live within the city limits and they may use the vehicles for errands and have families onboard; however, they are considered on duty whenever in a department vehicle. If no family members are present, they are encouraged to respond to calls for service. Three quarters of the fleet is marked. Recent concerns for officer safety has two officers riding together on a shift, which means that both drive their marked units to the station and one car is parked.
After two years of service, the Wilmington, NC, Police Department’s officers are assigned take-home cars. This amounts to about 1/3 of the entire fleet and they are restricted to living within a 15 mile radius of the city.
The Sandpoint, ND, Police Department has appropriated $200K to implement a take-home vehicle program which will eliminate the need to build a storage facility to store department vehicles.
Is It Safe Yet?
That question, from a classic spy mystery starring Dustin Hoffman, makes me wonder if America will ever be safe again for America’s law enforcement. One police program which I believe should be temporarily halted is taking home marked units as they can pose a serious, significant threat to officers, family and neighbors when parked in a residential neighborhood or apartment complex. A recent study showed that 70% of police ambushes were spontaneous; 54% were in residential areas and 73.4% were in daylight. The KCPD recently issued this advisory, “If you have a marked unit take-home police vehicle, or a vehicle identifiable as a police vehicle, be aware of your surroundings even when coming and going to your vehicle from your residence.”
As I was writing this article, in the county where I grew up, a Wyandotte County, KS, Sheriff’s sergeant exited his home to find all the windows shot out of his assigned unit. There are frequent reports of LE units parked in residential neighborhoods being broken into by thieves looking for weapons and other equipment, such as protective vests. Unfortunately, since so many of these vehicles must be ready to hit the road when called out, they are usually parked at the street or are the “last” car in a driveway so they are not blocked in. Thefts from LE vehicles are not exclusive to “locals,” either, as many FBI and DEA vehicles have been hit, too, and even the Secret Service has reported losses.
Can We Stop the Madness?
There’s an apartment complex I pass frequently and, depending on the time of day, I can count at least four police cars from various jurisdictions in the parking lot. Cops in apartments are nothing new and most receive discounted rents for living there and parking police cars there. While this complex is not in a high crime area, these police cruisers are susceptible to break-ins and vandalism nonetheless.
At the risk of alienating every American cop with a take-home car, following are my recommendations for these troubled and dangerous times.
- Temporarily suspend take-home vehicle programs, unless vehicles can be secured in a garage or behind a fence.
- If that is not possible, all vehicles must be equipped with adequate alarm systems, not just honking horns. Who the hell pays attention to honking horns anymore? Vehicles should also be secured with concealed “kill” switches.
- When parked at a private residence, all weapons, tactical gear and procedurals, and gas masks should be removed and stored inside the residence. Even the most benign equipment, such as uniform items, handcuffs, citation books, road flares, and spike strips, could be used for criminal purposes or by wanna-be impersonators. Walkie-talkies could be used to unscramble encrypted radio transmissions.
- Family members and civilians (other than those on official business) should NEVER be allowed in a police vehicle – ever. The dangers and liability are just too great.
- Marked police units parked at apartment complexes should be parked together in well lit areas of the parking lot (safety in numbers).
- Vehicles parked at neighborhood residences should be parked in well lit areas or protected with motion activated floodlights.
- Take-home vehicles should be checked periodically during the member’s off duty time and NEVER left unattended at a residence when no one is home for an extended period of time over three days.
- Patrol officers should be provided a list of take-home marked and unmarked police vehicles regularly parked on their beats and check them frequently.
- Criminals are very aware of shift change times. Department members with take-home units should be particularly attentive when leaving for work and a walk around the car first should be mandatory. Looking underneath and an examination for new damage and/or tampering is suggested. Upon entering the vehicle, it should be started immediately, the doors locked and the dispatcher notified they are 10-8 or in-service.
- Members arriving home at shift’s end should approach their domicile slowly, particularly at night. “Spotlighting” the house and surroundings first is recommended. Members should alert the dispatcher if they are 10-7 or out of service at home. Exit the vehicle promptly with equipment and be aware of your approach to the home or apartment.
- Errands in take-home units should be prohibited – or at least kept at a minimum – until the current crisis is abated. If errands are permitted, members should be told to handle every personal stop as if they were dispatched to a serious incident and they should alert dispatch of their location, arrival and departure. A verbal notification trumps a GPS every time.
- Lastly, chiefs, sheriffs, etc. should have in place definitive policies governing take-home programs and the programs should be examined at a minimum every quarter to insure compliance with the policy and to evaluate the efficiency and economy of the program and the safety of the participants.
These are ideas I’ve formulated over the last few months as the police death toll has mounted. I hope you find this piece beneficial and you will take further action to supplement them with your own good ideas. If we can take precautions to end this mindless slaughter of America’s finest, nothing I’ve written will have been in vain. God bless American law enforcement!
Sergeant James Post always welcomes your comments and suggestions. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.