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The Dilemma of Officers Who Abuse Equipment

Written by Jay Burch

As police administrators, we are always concerned about abuse issues involving our officers, especially when the allegation is in the form of physical or verbal abuse. Yet, there is a more common form of abuse administrators must cope with…abuse of equipment issued to officers. There seems to be an attitude of some officers that the equipment issued, whatever it is, doesn’t belong to them, so why should they take care of it?

How do we handle officers who knowingly abuse or neglect equipment? How do we limit this abuse? How do we make the employees more accountable?

First and foremost, the key ingredient to this issue that could eventually lead to disciplinary action is a firm, detailed policy or general order addressing department-issued equipment. The policy statement should also detail specific consequences for the employee in regard to abuse or neglect of the issued equipment. Administrators then need to ensure that the consequences are applied firmly and fairly with each case of proven abuse or neglect. If an administrator is not prepared to enforce such a policy firmly and consistently, there is no need to read further.

Take-Home Car Program

Unless a take-home car is part of a contractual employee agreement, it is privilege, not a right, to be issued a vehicle. This privilege alone should be enough to ensure that the employee cares for his assigned vehicle. The employer should put its policy in writing that any abuse or neglect of the vehicle by the employee shall result in the employee losing that privilege. Then have the employee sign that he has received and understands the directive. Even if issued a vehicle under contract, the city / county can have recourse under that policy.

The policy statement needs to list as many specific forms of abuse as possible or practical. The employee may not drive the wheels off a car, but he may never check the oil. Providing the employee a list of expected monthly checks is practical and useful. An administrator may also want to designate a supervisor to perform monthly vehicle inspections and report any possible abuse or neglect issues upon inspection.

Vehicle abuse or neglect has to be investigated, however, to avoid an officer mistakenly losing a privilege. For example, I once had a chief write up an officer for cracking the bumper of his assigned—and brand new—squad car. The chief saw the cracks in the rear bumper and went ballistic. However, the chief did not investigate the cracked bumper and just assumed the officer abused the vehicle. What the chief did not realize is that ALL these particular cars had cracked bumpers because of an alleged design flaw, and this officer had done nothing wrong or abusive.

We all know officers who have a reputation for being “hard” on police vehicles. We have to draw a fine line between having an aggressive officer who gets to a scene as quickly as he can and the sometimes lackluster efforts of some officers who take their time getting to a call in hopes that someone else gets their first to take the paper. As administrators, we have to set limits through policy and procedure. From a personal perspective, I believe there is a difference between an officer who is “hard” on vehicles and one who just abuses a vehicle because of a poor, uncaring attitude. There may not be that many instances where we “chase until the wheels fall off,” although some officers drive like that often. Driver training can also address some of these issues.

I suggest implementing a routine vehicle and equipment inspection program with a rigid vehicle / equipment check-out / check-in system. We must know to whom the equipment was checked out and when it was returned to determine who had the equipment during the time it was damaged. Major damage to vehicles or equipment should initiate an internal investigation, assuming the department has a policy in place to address suspected abuse or neglect. If I have an officer who purposely drives into a flood and seizes up an engine, that officer faces potentially serious disciplinary action.

An officer who routinely causes minor damage to a vehicle because he is just reckless usually ends up driving one of the oldest cars in the fleet for a designated period of time. An administrator’s city policy can also back him up with a rule such as three chargeable accidents in a two-year period will result in the employee losing driving privileges. For some medium to small departments, that means the officer loses his job because there are no desk jobs in these departments. I once lost a very good officer because he kept wrecking squad cars, even after remedial specialized training.

Other Forms of Abuse

Do you have officers who get 4,000 miles on a set of brake pads when everyone else gets 12,000 miles? If so, a supervisor may need to start riding out with this officer to determine his driving habits. If the officer complains about a supervisor riding out with him, the easy message is to stop pushing the car so hard. There may be a logical explanation, such as the officer is working in a tougher part of town where in-progress calls are more prevalent, meaning the officers have to drive Code 3 more often. More likely, the officer is pushing his vehicle too hard and could be disciplined under a rigid policy addressing vehicle or equipment abuse.

Other signs of potential abuse of vehicles exist. How about the officer who only gets 8 mpg in his vehicle when everyone else in the same patrol area gets 14 mpg? This could be indicative of a different problem. How much activity does the officer with 8 mpg on his vehicle have in comparison to the others who get 14 mpg? One officer has a car that gets more dings, dents, and lost hub caps than other officers in the same district or precinct?

How about the officer who goes through two new transmissions in 80,000 miles of driving when everyone else never needs a new transmission? Yes, it could be the vehicle. I had never had a transmission problem in a police vehicle in my career until I was issued a new vehicle. I went through three new transmissions in two years. The city and dealer mechanics finally found a flaw in the vehicle itself, so it happens, but not to the same officer day in and day out.

These are warning signs, and all of them need to be documented and presented to the officer in question. Put the answers on him to explain rather than on yourself. Make potential abuse / neglect situations accountable in policy and procedures, and then do not deviate from your own policy. Most officers want to avoid problems and disciplinary actions. To maintain a firm policy on vehicle and equipment abuse or neglect, one has to be prepared to fight that battle with your employees if necessary.

Some seemingly abusive situations may not actually be abuse. The early-90s Chevy Caprice had a propensity for losing wheel covers without much stressful driving. I originally thought it was the officer’s “dogging” the cars, but then found my best driving officers were losing wheel covers, too. The problem stopped when we went to the smaller hubcaps and got rid of the wheel covers. Today, if an officer can knock a small hubcap off the car routinely, that may be indicative of a real abuse problem and needs to be handled accordingly.

Abuse Prevention Issues

In addition to having a firm, detailed policy in place when it comes to department-issued vehicles and equipment, there are other abuse-prevention measures. For example, many departments these days are installing cameras in their vehicles. Having a video / audio recording system in a vehicle is not carte blanche for a supervisor or administrator to use to try to catch officers doing anything wrong. Having said that, there should be policy in place allowing review of video for case-filing purpose, complaints, and as a matter of routine, patrol supervisors may select a limited number of random calls to review the video to ensure the officer is being safe and responding appropriately to their calls.

The video footage from one recent citizen complaint showed that the complaint was completely unfounded as the officer did everything by the book as far as the call itself. However, in responding to the call, the officer was driving his squad car over 100 mph to a low-priority call. It was late at night and not many vehicles were on the street, so the officer punched it to get to the call.

The officer was counseled about the department’s driving policy and also about the liability of driving in such a manner to a low-priority call. This call response was a form of equipment abuse because there was no need to push the car like the officer did. The officer was warned that further actions like this would warrant disciplinary action, and then he was held to the policy statement.

Mandating some type of routine inspection process is also necessary. The officer is required to inspect the vehicle before he takes it on patrol. This inspection should be for both the exterior and interior of the vehicle as well as checking the oil. Any new damage or suspected mechanical problems has to be reported immediately to a supervisor, who investigates the report.

In addition, the supervisors are required to conduct monthly vehicle inspections of the exterior, interior and trunk. Officers are evaluated on the cleanliness of their vehicles also, especially internally. Officers who pile up trash during a shift are held just as accountable as one who gets several door dings during a shift.

Another option is to require the vehicle to be inspected by the shop or a mechanic once a month, especially the engine and undercarriage. Some officers drive police cars like tanks, running over anything and everything in their path to get to a call. While we all expect officers to “drive the wheels off” a car to help another officer in trouble or to a major felony in progress, most calls do not need that “tank-driver” type response.

Some departments have routine supervisor ride-out programs to evaluate their officers. Why not add driving skills and routine vehicle maintenance to these evaluations? My department receives merit raise consideration based on evaluations. I suspect that if officers know they may harm future merit consideration because of abuse or neglect issues, most will pay attention.

Discipline Options

Options for disciplining officers who knowingly and purposely abuse / neglect department-issued property vary with each department and are likely based on whether the department is at-will, civil service or collective bargaining. However, working under contract or at will, administrators may be able to tie in equipment abuse / neglect to evaluations, merit consideration, promotions or work assignments.

A number of departments have a policy statement that declares any employee who purposely and knowingly abuses or neglects equipment is potentially responsible for reimbursing the city (or entity) for any repair or replacement costs of the equipment. This type policy may be fought out in court to realize any substantial reimbursement request, but implementing such a policy from the start will likely limit some abusive practices.

A primary deterrent in most cases will be a strong policy statement or memorandum of understanding (MOU) to be signed by the employee that any proven abuse or neglect shall result in the officer losing that privilege or benefit sends a strong message to the employee. By having the employee sign the statement or MOU, he cannot appeal any disciplinary action based on ignorance of the policy.

Discipline options for administrators with officers who abuse or neglect equipment are many. If it is a take-home car, take the privilege from the officer who abuses the car. Park the car at the station when off duty, and only let the officer drive it during work hours.

If the problem is with shift-issued cars, force the officer to drive the oldest (but still safe) vehicles in the fleet for a designated period of time. Force the abusive officer to only ride in a police vehicle as a passenger and don’t let him operate a police vehicle for a designated period of time.

Other options exist. Send the officer to training or remedial training regarding driving skills or whatever form of abuse or neglect the officer was involved with. Implement a reward system for officers who do a good job in taking care of their vehicles and equipment. Create a policy that states as a last resort, officers who continually abuse vehicles or equipment face strong disciplinary action such as days off without pay, and they face the possibility of the city filing for reimbursement of repair or replacement cost of the equipment.

If such a policy would be difficult in your state, you may have an option of giving the officer days off without pay in the amount it would have cost to replace or repair the vehicle. As cops, we usually pay attention to any policy that could get in our pocketbooks.

Obviously, at-will employers implementing stricter measures will likely see progress sooner than civil service or collective bargaining employers, but it can be accomplished.

Document, Document, Document

As with any issue or policy in our business that could lead to disciplinary actions, we must ensure consistent and detailed documentation of any potential problems with an employee. This philosophy is especially important in civil service and collective bargaining agencies because of the longer and sometimes more difficult disciplinary process. As with any potential disciplinary action, you have to build a strong documented case to have any success with the disciplinary action.

Regardless of whether the vehicle in question is a take-home or a shift-issued vehicle, if officers know there are firm ramifications for abuse or neglect and they will be held strictly accountable, incidents of abuse or neglect should be reduced. Administrators can implement the same rigid policy for all department-issued equipment.

For those employees who continue to ignore policy, we must be fair, firm and consistent in holding them accountable to do their job as expected.

Jay Burch is a 20-year veteran police officer and has been a police chief for eight years, currently with the Mount Pleasant, TX Police. Burch, who has a master’s degree in law enforcement administration from Sam Houston State University, is a master certified peace officer in Texas and a state licensed police instructor. He can be reached at jburch@mpcity.org.

Published in Police Fleet Manager, Jul/Aug 2008

Rating : 9.7


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