BY GINNY LAROE
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (Little Rock)
When a thief in a stolen hybrid car smoked lawmen in Crown Victorias during a high-speed chase through Clark County earlier this year, Arkadelphia Police Chief Al Harris was impressed.
Any question his officers had about whether hybrids had the guts to be police cars was answered that night, the chief said. This fall, the Arkadelphia Police Department will join the growing number of law-enforcement agencies across the country using hybrids when a new fleet of 2010 Toyota Camry Hybrids hits the streets of the southwest Arkansas town.
"There was probably some hesitation and some concerns" among officers, the chief said. "But again, the word gets around pretty quick - that Honda hybrid was leaving us in the dust. They expect that performance." Arkadelphia is thought to be the first law-enforcement agency in Arkansas to put a full fleet of hybrids on patrol. The companies that outfit cars with police gear, the state's main training academy and various law-enforcement officials had heard of no other agencies making such a large-scale switch.
The move comes as Arkadelphia grapples with population and revenue loss, and as it tries to brand itself as a progressive place to live.
"Our plan is to do what's best for our community and try to move us forward," said City Manager Jimmy Bolt, who has led other environmental-minded initiatives in the city. "The only way I'm going to have new revenue is by being smarter with the things I have." As communities look for ways to save money on gas and reduce their carbon footprints, police agencies across the country have been testing hybrids on various assignments, often giving them to the top brass or detectives.
The hybrids have a gasoline engine and an electrical system made up of a motor, generator and battery, which work together.
At least one agency, the Aspen Police Department in Colorado, made a full-blown switch from Volvo sport utility vehicles to hybrid Toyota Highlanders earlier this year. And Salt Lake City police have two hybrid Camrys on patrol.
The south Arkansas city of El Dorado this year assigned three hybrid versions of the Chevrolet Malibu to detectives, and the New York City Police Department has deployed a few dozen marked and unmarked hybrid Nissan Altimas.
Still, using hybrids on patrol is largely uncharted territory, leaving open a number of questions about how well they'll perform in fast or tricky situations and how they'll hold up over the years.
"Somebody's got to ride the first rocket," Harris said.
DITCHING THE `DINOSAUR'
For many in law enforcement, there is only one real police car: the Ford Crown Victoria, what Ford calls the "legendary law enforcer." Ford makes a police version, called the Police Interceptor, designed to go high speeds on tires that can withstand the heat.
Other popular police cars, the Chevrolet Impala and the Dodge Charger, also come with police packages from the manufacturers, unlike hybrids.
But Arkadelphia wanted something different.
"We think the Crown Vic is a dinosaur, and it's on its way out," Bolt said.
The Camry - a midsized, four-door, four-cylinder sedan - is rated at 33 miles per gallon in the city, 34 miles per gallon on the highway.
The 10 Camrys, including the cost of outfitting them with police gear, had a price tag of just more than $382,000. They cost the city about $1,500 more per unit than other mainstay police cars, but they are expected to pay off in the long run, lasting longer and using less gas, Bolt said.
The cars will be assigned to officers and will be driven home instead of staying on the street, shift after shift. For now, six Crown Victorias will stay in the patrol rotation.
The city qualified for rural development grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is to pay 15 percent of the cost of the cars, or about $57,000.
With a population of about 10,000 and a median household income of $25,671, Arkadelphia was small enough and poor enough to get the money under the Rural Development Housing and Community Facilities Programs, said David Stowers, with the USDA based in Hope.
While many cities and counties use rural development grants for police cars, Arkadelphia is the only one in Arkansas to buy hybrids with the money, Stowers said.
In Salt Lake City, a city striving to be more "green," the hybrid Camry has been great for the police chief, who drives "calmly from stoplight to stoplight" in downtown traffic, said detective Jay Rhodes, the fleet coordinator.
The car averaged 40.36 miles to the gallon for the first six months, Rhodes said.
On patrol, however, Salt Lake City's Camrys have had problems.
The suspension is not as good as traditional police cars, Rhodes said. And, he said, officers have trouble getting suspects in the back seats because of limited foot space because of an ill-fitting police cage, Rhodes said.
The suspension issue became clear when one of the Camrys and some Impalas tore through a field on a call of shots fired. The bottom of the Camry scraped the ground as it bounded over the undeveloped plot of land, causing nearly $3,000 worth of damage, Rhodes said.
The Impalas, on the other hand, drove away without any damage, as the "nice, tight" suspension held up, Rhodes said.
The back-seat trouble with the cage - the partition that secures the suspect in the back, keeping the officer safe in the front - stems from the fact that no company manufactures a cage specifically to fit the Camry. So Salt Lake City police had one that was originally designed for an Impala cut down.
It left just a couple of inches on the floor for suspects to try and maneuver their feet.
"They're already not happy with you, and now you're explaining, `Sir, you need to put your foot this way,'" Rhodes said.
Also, the gas savings on patrol have been small for Salt Lake City.
A young officer who has one of the marked-up patrol units and pounds on the accelerator as he dashes from call to call is getting about 20 miles per gallon, versus about 17 in the Impalas, Rhodes said.
In El Dorado, the Union County city in south Arkansas, at least one detective is unhappy with his new hybrid Chevrolet Malibu, which is billed as the "most affordable midsized hybrid in America." "It's too small," said Sgt. Jamie Morrow, a stocky, 5-foot-10-inch man who prefers his old V8 Crown Victoria.
"It's a good-looking car, but it's just a little small for police usage." There are no plans to introduce hybrids to the fleets at the state's largest police agencies.
The Arkansas State Police, for instance, looked at buying a hybrid truck for an investigator in a rural part of the state. But the agency opted for a traditional Chevrolet Silverado at nearly an $18,000 savings, spokesman Bill Sadler said.
There has been no discussion of putting hybrids on patrol, he said.
Despite several hybrids in use by the city of Little Rock in various departments, police won't be getting any anytime soon, said Brock Vest, the city's fleet manager.
"The hybrids that are available are not pursuit-rated," he said. "Our entire patrol fleet is pursuit-rated. It would require us to change how we do patrols." He said the lack of a pursuit rating doesn't mean the hybrid can't go fast or isn't safe at high speeds.
"But it would not have the same handling characteristics as a vehicle that is rated to be a high-speed pursuit vehicle," Vest said.
Toyota says the Camry does zero to 60 in 8.9 seconds and has a top speed of 115. That's compared with top speeds of 119 or 129 for the Crown Victoria, depending on specifications.
In Salt Lake City, the Camry has not been put to the test in a pursuit. Rhodes, the detective who manages the fleet, said his agency's policy restricts pursuits to very few situations, so they are rare.
In Arkadelphia, Harris echoed that sentiment. Still, he said he is in talks with driving instructors at the Arkansas Law Enforcement Training Academy in Camden about sending a couple of the Camrys down to test, since there are no hybrids in the training fleet.
"I'm glad I'm close to retirement if this thing goes south," he said.