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Retail Cars in Police Use

Written by John Bellah

What if you could pick your own police vehicle? A vehicle tailored to the make, model, color and options you want. Perhaps a GPS navigation system, leather seats, power sunroof, a DVD player, and a stereo system with a 6-disc CD changer and iPod/MP3 compatibility.

Some departments will assign a dedicated vehicle to an individual officer, and a few will allow the officer to take the vehicle home with him. Of the departments that assign vehicles to individual officers, some departments may allow the officer latitude in selecting the make, color and options, providing it is a police package vehicle.

In some of the Hawaiian Islands, however, some officers own their own cars, others run entirely fleet vehicles, and some are a mixture of fleet and personally owned vehicles. The use of a personally owned vehicle is a unique program. How does the program work? Why do some officers drive marked cars while others drive the cool unmarked cars or SUVs? Who pays for the gas, oil and maintenance? What about repairs? And who bears liability if the vehicle is damaged or involved in a collision? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each concept?

While some jurisdictions require police vehicles to be distinctly marked, Hawaii Revised Statutes allow unmarked vehicles of any color to enforce traffic laws. The Honolulu Police Department has utilized subsidized or personally owned vehicles since 1932, a program which was modeled after a similar program in effect in Berkeley, CA.

Subsidized vehicles are privately owned or leased by the officers and are unmarked, save for a blue strobe light which is mounted on the roof while the officer is on duty. The officers are paid a monthly stipend to cover the operating costs of the vehicle. The first marked police vehicle appeared in 1939 when a Honolulu Police captain affixed POLICE signs on the sides and rear of his subsidized vehicle.

Contrary to the popular television show “Hawaii Five-O,” which ran from 1967 through 1980, there is no statewide police force within the Hawaiian Islands. Each island is also termed a county. The police department, either city or county, has countywide jurisdiction on that island.

The island of Oahu, where Honolulu and Waikiki are located, is also termed the City and County of Honolulu, and the Honolulu Police Department (HPD) is tasked with maintaining law and order in both the city of Honolulu and on the remainder of the island. The Hawaii County Police Department (HCPD) has jurisdiction in Hilo and other towns, as well as the remainder of the “Big Island,” or the Island of Hawaii. Kauai maintains its own police department, which covers the entire island. The Maui Police Department, in addition to serving the citizens of Maui, also has jurisdiction on the islands of Molokai and Lanai.

Hawaii has the lowest speed limit of any state in the U.S., which is now 60 mph on Oahu’s H-1 and H-3 freeways. On surface roads and highways within the islands, speed limits vary, with 55 mph being the maximum limit. Even with lower speed limits, the high-performance police vehicle is still an important tool in maintaining law and order. High-performance cars are popular on the islands, resulting in the major problem of illegal street racing.

Even back in the mid-1960s, the marked Honolulu PD cruisers were full-size Chevrolet and Ford sedans equipped with massive big block engines. Expressed in liters, these big V-8s were 7.5L engines. In those days, the younger officers who rated subsidized vehicles ran Mustangs, Plymouth Roadrunners, Pontiac GTOs, Oldsmobile 442s or similar performance cars, while the older veteran officers enjoyed the luxury of a Mercury, Chrysler, Buick or Oldsmobile.

The Honolulu Police Department is one of the larger police departments in the U.S., with approximately 2,100 sworn officers. It has a fleet of 658 city-owned vehicles and 1,333 officer-owned or subsidized vehicles. The Hawaii County Police Department has 432 sworn officers and currently utilizes almost all subsidized vehicles, save for at least one marked “blue and white” which is available at every station. Both the Maui and Kauai Police Departments utilize fleet vehicles.

The fleet concept versus subsidized vehicles is a hotly debated topic, and each side has valid points. The West Hawaii Crime Stoppers, a citizen’s group on the Island of Hawaii, has pushed for more police visibility via marked police vehicles. The Legislative Auditor’s Office of the Hawaii County Council has made numerous studies on the topic of subsidized vehicles going back over 35 years. Representing the majority of cops on the islands, the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers (SHOPO) also contributes a lot of input pushing for subsidized vehicles.

The Fleet Concept

The Honolulu Police Department fleet includes fully equipped, blue-and-white Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptors. Termed as “whites,” these cars have full lightbars, mobile data computers, radios and security screens. The HPD fleet also includes a few experimental hybrid vehicles, and some “stealth” vehicles are used to deal with illegal street racing. Over half of the HPD officers drive subsidized vehicles.

In 1977, the Maui County Police Department transitioned from subsidized vehicles over to a fleet of fully marked and equipped cruisers, which are currently Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor sedans. Unmarked and “stealth” vehicles such as Mustangs and Camaros are used for traffic enforcement and to deal with street racers. They also have numerous multi-purpose vehicles, such as 4x4 Isuzu Troopers, Jeep Cherokees, Chevrolet Blazers and Ford Broncos, which are used for patrolling rural areas on the island, as well as on the islands of Lanai and Molokai.

Beginning in the early 1970s, the Kauai County Police Department transitioned from subsidized vehicles to department-owned vehicles. A few years later, they implemented a take-home program in which officers could take their vehicles home and store them at their residences. Fleet administrators found that the take-home program was successful as the officers took better care of the vehicles and there was less abuse; thus, the equipment lasted longer.

The advantages of a department-owned vehicle are many, for these are heavy-duty, police-specification vehicles that are designed for the punishment of police service. Police-package vehicles have superior brakes and handling over most retail vehicles. The electrical systems are designed to handle the increased electrical draw of the extra police equipment. The county may lower liability insurance premiums due to the usage of “police package” vehicles.

Standardized equipment eases maintenance and maintaining replacement parts inventories. Police vehicles are easily recognized by the public. Using vehicles with a security cage between the front and rear seat means safer prisoner transport. Other advantages include central parking and maintenance facilities, and officer safety as the citizenry does not readily know what the officer’s personal vehicle looks like.

Disadvantages to department-owned vehicles also exist. Fleet vehicles may have a shorter vehicle service life due to different drivers and vehicle abuse. Former police vehicles have little resale value on the islands. The high shipping costs to ship used police vehicles to the mainland is not cost effective. Other disadvantages include: high repair costs after warranty expiration; high “up-front” costs needed to purchase a large fleet of vehicles and to obtain space for parking, storage and maintenance facilities; and downtime needed during shift changes for the officer to remove personal gear and for the on-coming officer to equip his vehicle.

Subsidized vehicles are unique. With subsidized vehicles, the officer purchases or leases the vehicle. The vehicle must meet certain minimum standards. It cannot be a sports car, convertible, van or pickup. It cannot be powered by a diesel engine, nor can it be in service for more than eight years after initial purchase. However, special exceptions can be made—if approved, the vehicle can be used up to an additional two years.

The subsidized vehicle must be able to hold at least four adult male occupants in reasonable comfort and have seatbelt restraints for all occupants. The subsidized vehicle can be any color but must have a wheelbase of at least 100 inches and be powered by a V-8 engine. If a V-8 engine is not available for that particular model, the largest 6-cylinder engine available must be used. Departments that allow subsidized vehicles maintain a list of “approved” vehicles which is updated yearly.

The officer who has a subsidized vehicle gets a monthly stipend to cover the cost of purchasing or leasing the vehicle. This allowance is also intended to cover any maintenance and repairs, as well as insurance. Depending on the officer’s department and assignment, the stipend currently runs about $540 to $600 per month. The vehicle is upfitted by the department, which will install the two-way radio equipment, siren and emergency warning lighting, long-gun rack(s) and mobile data computers, if equipped.

The department will provide one gallon of gasoline for every 10 patrol miles and one quart of oil for every 500 miles. Oil may also be drawn, up to crankcase capacity, for a scheduled oil change. Officers are required to meticulously document official mileage on a daily basis, and the vehicles are subject to periodic inspections for cleanliness; condition; and to see that it meets legal requirements for lighting, window tinting and other conditions. It must also meet department regulations concerning items such as political bumper stickers.

State law does not allow counties to self-insure their vehicles unless the county actually owns the vehicle. Thus with subsidized vehicles, the county is responsible for on-duty incidents, and the vehicle and officer are covered by a blanket “no-fault” liability and property damage policy. However, the officer must provide his own comprehensive and collision insurance to cover the vehicle while he is off duty. Some officers may have difficulty obtaining the proper coverage or face higher insurance premiums due to the hazards of their profession.

If the subsidized vehicle is damaged during an on-duty incident, the department will arrange for a replacement vehicle, or it can reassign the officer. Off duty, if the vehicle is damaged and rendered unserviceable, the officer is responsible for arranging and equipping a suitable replacement vehicle. If the replacement vehicle is only to be used for a short amount of time, such as using a rental vehicle, the department’s radio shop can supply a blue light and a portable radio for the duration that the replacement vehicle is in service.

Emergency lighting is provided by the department, which in most cases is a removable blue strobe light mounted on top of the vehicle. This is attached by a strap securing it to the roof and can be easily removed when the officer is off duty. Honolulu Police also utilize mid-line LED emergency lighting in the rear windows to further protect the vehicle from rear-end collisions. Detectives are allowed to utilize a dash-mounted emergency light. Per Hawaii statutes, only police vehicles are authorized to use blue lights.

The Whelen Engineering Co. developed the Model #WS610HPD Siren System, which is specifically designed for the Honolulu Police Department. There are two lighting modes. The first is WARNING, in which the blue strobe flashes brightly during a pursuit, while taking enforcement action or if the vehicle poses a hazard. The CRUISE mode is required by some departments when operating at night, and the blue light is required to be on; however, it glows at lesser intensity and does not flash.

Under some circumstances, such as a tactical situation, the cruise function may be extinguished or the light may be removed completely upon approval. The 105-watt siren has an under-hood speaker, which is operated in the WAIL mode for responses and YELP for actually pulling over vehicles. No other siren tones are authorized. When the siren is operating, the blue emergency light must be operating, as well as the headlamps. Officers may also add additional emergency lighting to their vehicles, however, at their own expense.

In Hawaii, officers are allowed to work off-duty assignments, such as security or funeral escorts, while in uniform and using their subsidized vehicles. During off-duty activities, the subsidized vehicle is not considered an emergency vehicle, and the officer must abide by all traffic laws.

Another issue is speedometers. Police package vehicles have “certified” speedometers. Retail vehicles don’t. In the past, even “certified” speedometers were subject to varying readings at different temperatures. With the introduction of Event Data Recorders, which track airbag deployments, the federal government now requires speedometers on retail vehicles to be accurate within 3%. Speedometer calibration is checked by traffic radar on a yearly basis, which satisfies the courts.

Honolulu Police Department

The HPD has been running subsidized vehicles since 1932. Newly hired HPD officers will be assigned to marked vehicles, which are currently Ford CVPIs, referred to as “whites.” These vehicles are fully marked, with full blue lightbars, and they have security screens.

Officers who wish to drive subsidized vehicles currently must have eight to 10 years of seniority in order to qualify. In the old days, officers who qualified for a subsidized vehicle were called “Motormen;” however, that term is long forgotten, save for some of the older veterans of the department. Not all officers who qualify to drive a subsidized vehicle elect to do so. Some are happy to continue using a marked department vehicle.

Different radio call signs identify a marked vehicle from a subsidized vehicle. A marked vehicle has the “BRAVO” designation, and a subsidized vehicle is identified by a “MIKE” designation. Thus dispatch, supervisors and fellow officers will know what type of vehicle is involved by its radio designator. HPD policy doesn’t allow prisoner transportation in a subsidized vehicle, and when a subject is in custody, a marked unit with a security cage will be called for the actual transportation.

Hawaii County Police Department

The Hawaii County Police Department has run almost entirely subsidized vehicles since 1943; however, each district (station) has at least one marked blue-and-white available. Police motorcycles, however, are department-owned. Newly hired officers will be assigned to a marked vehicle. After completion of their field training, they will then transition into a subsidized vehicle. The HCPD subsidized vehicle standards are similar to HPD’s standards. The marked vehicle can also be utilized if an officer needs to transport a violent prisoner; otherwise, he may use the subsidized vehicle for prisoner transportation of non-violent in-custodies.

Advantages & Disadvantages

In 1967, it was strongly suggested that the Honolulu Police Department transition over to having its own fleet of vehicles. The Hawaii County Police Department underwent several studies going back to 1972 on the subject and had recently seriously considered a pilot project to see if going over to the fleet concept would be cost effective.

Fleet vehicles do get hard service; thus, fleet vehicles needed to be replaced at more frequent intervals than subsidized vehicles. Kauai Police Department Motor Supervisor Mike Layosa stated that before the department’s take-home program, the lifespan of a typical fleet vehicle was about three years. Beyond that time period, he described the vehicles as “junk.” The take-home program has markedly lessened the abuse problem, and the officers take better care of the equipment.

One serious consideration these days for a department making the transition to having its own fleet is the cost and availability of obtaining land for parking and maintenance facilities. In crowded urban areas such as Honolulu, whose fleet maintenance facilities are at the academy in Wailuku, this may no longer be a feasible option.

Retail vehicles are not designed to endure police service. The HPD ran into some major battery and alternator issues after installing computers in their vehicles a few years back. The added drain of the computers was draining the batteries, drastically shortening alternator and battery life. This was solved by installing timers which would automatically shut off power to the computers after a certain period of time that the engine had been shut off. The department “grapevine” is also very quick to announce which retail vehicles are best suited as subsidized vehicles and which aren’t.

Some officers complained that the monthly subsidy should be increased, as it is not enough to cover the cost of the car, maintenance and insurance. If an officer opts to purchase or lease a new vehicle every year or two, the vehicle allowance may not completely cover these costs. However, if the officer keeps the vehicle beyond when it is paid off, the monthly allowance becomes a kind of “deferred comp” program and the officer can profit, assuming repair costs don’t skyrocket.

On the other side of the coin, the current allowance for fuel and oil goes back to the early 1970s when police vehicles had big-block V-8 engines that were a lot thirstier than what is available today. Some government entities would like to revise the one gallon of fuel allocated per 10 duty miles and one quart of oil per 500 miles to more realistic figures.

Other advantages include higher officer morale. Officers can take positive police action while off duty and have the ability to communicate with the department or other officers in the event of a tactical situation. Officers take better care of their own equipment, especially knowing that repairs will be out of pocket. No downtime is needed at shift change due to the officer transferring his gear into a patrol vehicle. During an emergency or disaster, officers can immediately respond from their residences instead of driving to the police station, finding a vehicle and equipping it.

Disadvantages exist. The citizenry can easily identify the officer and/or family members while off duty. Citizens, especially tourists, are unable to readily identify a passing police vehicle in times of need. The vehicles have a low trade-in value due to high accumulated mileage. Maintenance and repairs come out of the officer’s pocket. Modifications and upgrades to retail vehicles to endure the rigors of police service also come out of the officer’s pocket. There are also high insurance costs, along with difficulty in obtaining comprehensive and collision insurance due to the hazards of the police occupation.

A few years back, Hawaii County Police was seriously considering a pilot program to transition over to the fleet concept. For all practical purposes, that concept ended on October 15, 2006, when the island was hit by a 6.5-magnitude earthquake which caused considerable property damage, disrupted water and electricity, and completely closed highways. Off-duty officers were called in from their residences and could immediately respond without wasting time by driving to the station, finding an available police vehicle, and switching their patrol gear into that vehicle.

John L. Bellah recently retired from a 31-year career as a working police officer for a Southern California law enforcement agency. He is the technical editor for Police Fleet Manager and a member of SAE International. He can be contacted at pfmteched@yahoo.com.


Published in Police Fleet Manager, Sep/Oct 2009

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