Photo by Ted Fitzgerald
Somerville police officer Alan Monaco patrols the Prospect Hill area on bike last week.
Boys in blue go green with gas alternatives
Municipal police departments, which must run 24-hour fleets on $4-a-gallon gas, are charging extra for cruisers at traffic details, increasing bicycle and motorcycle patrols, and putting electric-powered vehicles into commission, a Herald review has found.
A Herald survey of the state's largest police forces found that cops are being asked to morph into fuel-efficient crime fighters while gas costs gobble tens of thousands of dollars in law enforcement cash.
"The whole fuel thing is a major public safety issue. It's a major economic issue," said Framingham police Chief Steven B. Carl. "We put cops in very specific areas to keep them from driving around a lot and to be more efficient. You just can't get away from answering calls. Most people don't have accidents or commit crimes in areas that are convenient to police."
Carl no longer lets officers use cruisers at traffic details without his approval. If a cruiser is assigned for safety reasons or emergencies, Framingham police levy a $20 hourly surcharge. Somerville cops have rolled out a similar policy, charging a $20 police cruiser fee for four- or eight-hour shifts, said Capt. Michael Cabral.
"I am doing everything I can to protect the taxpayers and that includes details," said Carl, whose $11 million budget includes $181,250 for fuel. He said Framingham outspent that figure last year.
Wayne A. Sampson, director of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, estimated that medium-sized police departments will pony up an extra $50,000 - the equivalent of a starting patrol officer's salary - for fuel.
"Unless some municipalities put in an extra cushion in their budgets for the petroleum product, there could be a severe shortage at the end of the year," said Sampson, a retired Shrewsbury police chief.
"With the concern coming out of the Legislature relative to the possibility of future budget cuts later on this year, everyone is taking on an extremely cautious view," Sampson said.
Patrol cars pose a major fuel-savings obstacle for law enforcement. Most departments use an 8-cylinder Ford Crown Victoria, which has high-speed emergency breaking capacity and gear ratios suitable for police pursuits.
So far, hybrids and other fuel-efficient cars are not powerful nor big enough for police equipment or to sustain the wear and tear of patrol. "Hybrid vehicles will not be a replacement for front-line cruisers," said Fall River police Sgt. Thomas Mauretti.
The department's fuel budget grew from $302,010 to $324,315 in a year to power 104 vehicles around Fall River's 32 square miles. "The long-term plan for hybrids would be exclusive to administrative cars for detectives," Mauretti said.
There is a way to get around the patrol car dilemma. In New Bedford, cops replaced marked cruisers with 23 E85 fuel-compliant vehicles, said Lt. Jeffrey P. Silva. The cruisers burn varied amounts of ethanol and gas simultaneously.
The force of 282 officers also acquired two emissions-free electric cycles from Vectrix Corp. to patrol the downtown business district and the waterfront, Silva said.
In Somerville, police spent $159,800 on 59,627 gallons of unleaded fuel in fiscal 2008 while patroling the city's 4 square miles, according to an e-mail statement.
This year, seven officers have been assigned to mountain bike duty as "neighborhood police officers," officers are riding motorcycles, detectives have ditched the 8-cylinder Crown Victoria for four Ford Tauruses and department brass is hammering out a policy to discourage idling, Cabral said.
Lowell, which operates 130 police vehicles over 14 square miles, increased its fuel budget by $100,000 to $368,500 this year, said Capt. Deborah Friedl. To offset the strain on the $22.4 million budget, Lowell cops are using the $9,000 T3 Motion, a battery-operated three-wheel vehicle, to patrol public housing, Friedl said. The Lowell Housing Authority purchased the first T3 and cops plan to purchase another soon, Friedl said.
"They are on a higher vantage point than if they were on foot. They are more visible than on a bicycle," Friedl said of the T3 officers. "It's also more cost-effective than patroling a small area with a crusier."
The department is hoping to save money on gas by having officers write reports from computers in their cruisers and by increasing motorcycle patrols, Friedl said.
Christopher Menton, an associate professor of criminal justice at Roger Williams University in Bristol, R.I., surveyed police chiefs in Massachusetts and Rhode Island as to whether they will implement more bike patrols to save on fuel.
Of the 100 departments that responded, 11 percent of the rural and urban forces indicated they will increase bike patrols, 35 percent of suburban forces said they will use more bikes and 55 percent of university police departments said they will bike more.
Menton, who has researched the use of bike patrols in five East Coast cities, said cops on bikes are less isolated from the public, more visible to citizens and more efficient. "I understand that we're locked into this love affair with the car, particularly a nice beefy cruiser. The reality is you're better off using a bicycle. It's cheaper and more efficient," Menton said.
In Gloucester, police are parking cruisers for an hour a day for a walking beat and using a T3 Motion and two ATVs bought with grant money, said Chief John Beaudette. "We're basically looking to trim 25 percent of our gas costs," said Beaudette.