High gas prices hit many departments hard
By Jeffrey Collins
NEWBERRY, S.C. — With gasoline climbing toward $4 a gallon, police officers around the country are losing the right to take their patrol cars home and are being forced to double up in cruisers and walk the beat more.
The gas crunch could also put an end to the time-honored way cops leave their engines running when they get out to investigate something.
Some police chiefs think the moneysaving measures are not all bad, and might actually help them do a better job. But they worry about the loss of take-home cars, saying the sight of a cruiser parked in a driveway or out in front of a home deters neighborhood crime.
In Newberry, population 10,000, Chief Jackie Swindler is telling his officers to turn off the ignition whenever they are stopped for more than a minute or so, and to get out and walk around more.
"It's not a rolling office that you stay in all day," Swindler said. "You still need to get out and interact with the public."
Jonathan Taylor, a rookie officer in Newberry, said walking the beat in the region's oppressive summer heat may be a drag, but he added: "We're police officers. It's not supposed to be a comfortable job. If getting out and walking helps me do the best job I can, I'm all for it."
In Grainger County, Tenn., Sheriff James Harville planned for gas prices of $2.22 a gallon when he drew up his budget last year. He has since redrawn the patrol map for the two officers who work each shift, splitting his county in half. He now puts one officer in each half and makes them responsible for all calls in their area.
"That way, unless it's just a life-threatening call, I don't have officers just crisscrossing the county," said Harville, who has asked local officials for an extra $30,000 to keep patrol cars running in the county of 22,000 in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains.
When shifts overlap in Apple Valley, Minn., officers pair up and supervisors send those cruisers to domestic disputes, burglar alarms and other calls that would usually require two officers to respond separately, said Capt. Jon Rechtzigel. Officers also have been asked to turn off their engines whenever possible.
"Years ago, you used to pull in a back lot to investigate something and keep your car running," Rechtzigel said. "You just can't afford to do that anymore."
In the South Carolina town of Elgin, Police Chief Harold Brown delayed hiring a sixth officer so he could use the money for gas. "I guess you could say rising gas prices have cost me a man," said Brown, who found enough money in his budget to bring the new officer on board a few weeks ago.
The Georgia State Patrol has asked troopers to reduce the amount of time spent driving by 25 percent.
In Evansville, Ind., some officers will lose their take-home cars and others will have to pay more for the privilege. Starting Friday, those living within city limits will pay $25 every two weeks and those in the surrounding county will pay $35. Both groups previously paid $10. Eleven workers living outside the county will no longer get take-home police cars.
Proposals to restrict the use of take-home police cars also are on the table in Camden, Del., Avon Park, Fla., and Hagerstown, Md.
"I don't think we should be taking our city cruisers outside of our city," said Hagerstown City Councilwoman Kelly S. Cromer. "With the price of gas right now, I just really think that's a waste."
In Allegany County, Md., Sheriff David Goad told elected officials seeking to limit his department's use of take-home vehicles that "it's a proven fact" that the sight of a patrol car on the road or in a driveway deters crime.
As the fiscal year comes to an end, chiefs and sheriffs are trying to predict how high gas prices will go and craft budgets that won't be blown.
"It's a shot in the dark," Swindler said. "You just have to take your best guess."
Swindler, who joined the force as a patrol officer in 1975 - back when "only people with rank had a car" — said the return to old-fashioned police work could be a good thing in some ways, by bringing officers in closer contact with the public.
Newberry officers don't seem to mind. Sgt. Andy Rowe said he has heard no complaints from the officers he oversees as a shift supervisor and doesn't mind walking a little himself.
"I enjoy getting out and interacting with everybody," Rowe said.
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