Between July and December 2008, the Detroit automakers lost 67 years of experience in a severe blow to the police community. That’s what my Ford’s Michael Blackmer told me after hearing that Chevrolet’s Bruce Wiley passed away. Just think of it. Michael Blackmer himself was part of a downsizing at Ford after 16 years where he was the police vehicle engineer.
Then Roxie Thomas took early retirement after 20 years at Chrysler after being the senior manager government sales. Bruce Wiley, police product and marketing manager at General Motors, passed away after 31 years of employment. And this 67 years of experience total doesn’t even count the retirement of Mike Quinn, Chrysler’s LX platform engineer, a major force behind the police version of the Charger.
All of these people were instrumental among their teams to provide police departments with safe, dependable vehicles, which were the best vehicles ever brought to the police market. The dedication of these people is clear. Their response to our needs was unyielding, and the spirit in which they performed their duties was unequivocal. Anyone can be replaced, and all eventually will be, but to have key people like these exit their jobs from each manufacturer at this vital time is extraordinary.
Today, an economic crisis of such a magnitude exists that we may not recognize any of the three police vehicle manufacturers when this all shakes out. Three of the four current police vehicles are in their downward lifecycles. So, what lies ahead for police vehicles? Will there be a specialized vehicle to handle the daily grind of a squad car when the current vehicles disappear? Will a single vehicle do it all, require a mix of vehicles? What manufacturer(s) will it come from? Will police fleet managers be subjected to going to a local car lot and buy a family sedan, farm truck, soccer mom crossover or SUV, pony car or combination of all the above to fit their needs?
The use of a retail vehicle could give departments more of a choice. But the average retail car is not built to handle the needs of police departments, whether it’s related to performance, suspension, electrical, HVAC, bid price, etc. This doesn’t even consider the aftermarket equipment needed to accommodate prisoners, communication equipment, shotguns, video cameras and other specialized equipment found in today’s squad car.
Selling 70,000 police vehicles annually by all three manufacturers isn’t going to make them rich. This is about a half of a percent of all vehicles they sell. If they can’t make a business case for it, how do they spend millions of dollars bringing a car to market when they can’t recoup their investment?
Could a start-up company fill the void if the “Detroit Three” choose not to? Perhaps, but be careful what you wish for. If established companies that make a multitude of products can’t offset losses from police products, what makes you think a start-up company can?
In the past 15 years, some companies with excellent ideas and concepts have considered entering the police car business but for a variety of reasons, nothing happened. They failed because of one or several factors: cost, quality, distribution, service, compatibility of upfitting equipment, resale and lack of profit.
It would not be responsible for a fleet manager to involve the public’s dollars without seriously considering these important factors. More power to an upstart if they can come in and provide the equipment needed for the law enforcement community, but if history tells us anything, it will be extremely difficult.
Where does this leave us? Let the car companies know that you stand behind them and that the vehicles they provide are important to this industry. And let them know, even though the cars we know today may be different from what is offered in a couple of years, that you trust their experience and feedback they get from their user advisory.
You also have a responsibility to explore options and think outside the box. For instance, do you really need a police vehicle for detectives or can they use a compact car to achieve their duties? In today’s climate, you will need to be more flexible, more forgiving and more open to new ideas.
In one of the last e-mails I received from Bruce Wiley, he discussed the police vehicles in the next few years. “They must be ready and flexible to make change when needed,” Wiley wrote. “It is simple. Just be aware of what is happening in the retail arena. If there is a major change there, that has impact to the police business. Start getting ready for the impact to the cop car.”
Dennis Tucker recently retired as police fleet manager for the Illinois State Police with 29 years of public service experience. He is chairman of the Police Fleet Expo hosted by the Hendon Expo Group. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.