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Ill. dept. to cut costs with hybrid patrol vehicle

By Lee Provost
Kankakee Daily Journal
Related: "Hypermiling" the law enforcement way

PEOTONE, Ill. — Spending money to fuel police cars is one of those inflexible line items, something that has to be done regardless of cost. But when gas prices hit $3 and then $3.50 a gallon several months ago, at least one area police chief said it was time to reconsider the expense.

Now, the Peotone Police Department is on the leading edge of what could become a statewide trend: The department added a hybrid, fuel-efficient car to its fleet of gas-guzzling sedans and SUVs.

Since October, the four-cylinder Ford Escape has been patrolling the village streets and thus far gets more than double the fuel mileage of any other squad car within the department's eight-vehicle fleet.

"We're trying to think outside of the box," said Police Chief Bill Mort. "I tell my people, 'Don't think about yesterday; let's think about tomorrow.' You have to try things. You have to look at other options."

The department's fleet is composed of four Ford Crown Victorias, one Chevrolet Impala, one Chevrolet Suburban, one Dodge minivan and the Escape.

The Crown Victoria has long been the choice of police departments for the patrol vehicles, but with its fuel-guzzling V-8 engine, it gets roughly 8 miles per gallon, said Lt. Marvin Rathert.

"You get behind a Crown Vic, and it's almost like you can see the dollar bills going out the tailpipe," Mort said. "Government has to realize that there is only so much money out there that's available. When you get to a certain point, that's it; there's no more. The taxpayer can only be stretched so thin."

Tight budget

The police department has an annual budget of $33,000 for fuel and oil. In a typical month, officers log between 12,000 and 14,000 in patrol miles, costing about $4,500 for fuel and maintenance.

If prices remain at current levels, there's a good chance the department will overspend its fuel budget by more than $20,000, prompting the chief to say he'll have to ask for more funds for the next fiscal year that begins on April 1.

He knew he needed to find a solution to the fiscal problem. That's when he read that New York City cabs were being switch to hybrids. He began to investigate.

"If these vehicles can handle New York City traffic, then maybe they would work here," Mort said.

Through the first few months of use, Rathert said, the Escape is getting 20 miles per gallon. "For law enforcement, that's very good," he said.

Idea catching on

Peotone police may be discovering something the Northern Illinois University Police in DeKalb found out about three years ago. Hybrids account for 80 percent of the university's police fleet, according to an article published on NIU's Web site, www.niu.edu.

The university has a police force of 45 officers, who log about 1,300 miles per month. Eventually, the entire fleet will be made up of hybrids.

The idea is slowly catching on, said Laimutis Nargelenas, deputy director of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police.

Currently only a few departments throughout the state use hybrids, but several are researching these vehicles, he said.

"As fuel cost becomes a greater concern, departments have to take looks in this direction," Nargelenas said.

The Illinois State Police is one department that is not considering the smaller, energy-efficient cars, said ISP Public Information Officer, Master Sgt. Brian Ley.

The hybrids have not been rated as police pursuit vehicles and as such are not as suitable for the heavy highway driving common for state troopers.

While the Escape is smaller than the others in the Peotone fleet, it still was possible to outfit it with lights, sirens and the other equipment officers need.

The vehicle cost about $23,000 or about $2,000 more than the Crown Victoria. Lower fuel consumption should more than make up for the slightly higher price, Mort said.

"We know one thing for sure: Fuel costs are never going to go down to where it was," Mort said. "People have to start thinking outside the box."
Copyright 2008 The Kankakee Daily Journal

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