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Study: Police vehicle take-home policy cheaper than car pool

By Staff | Sep 18, 2010

Cape Coral officials will consider the results of a study on the police department’s take-home vehicle program as they review the city’s entire fleet management system.
Last week, Drs. Howard Smith and Margaret Banyan with Florida Gulf Coast University’s Southwest Florida Center for Public and Social Policy submitted the results of the “Assigned Vehicle Policy Evaluation.” They found that the current program is less expensive than switching to a purely pooled vehicle policy or a modified pooled vehicle program.
In a purely pooled program, all personnel would share vehicles, where as specific key personnel would have assigned vehicles and others would not under a modified pooled policy, according to the documents in the study.
“The Cape Coral Police Department basically asked us to look into the various alternatives to the current assigned vehicle program,” Smith, the principal investigator, said. “They understood the city wanted to save some money.”
The study, for which the police department will pay, cost about $5,800 to complete. Smith said he and Banyan, the co-principal investigator, began the study in mid-summer, and they turned over their findings to the police chief, city manager, staffers and others last week.
On Thursday, City Manager Gary King said he had a basic understanding of the specifications and criteria used in the study and how it was conducted.
“I learned the nature and approach of the study,” he said.
But, King said, he had no thoughts about the results of the evaluation.
“I have not drawn any conclusions, to be quite honest,” he said. “I really have not done any personal assessment of what was concluded in the study.”
Smith pointed out that the study was conducted from a neutral position.
“We didn’t go into it with any particular interest or bias,” he said.
According to King, the results of the study will be incorporated into the “broader fleet management” review that is being conducted. He called the take-home vehicle program “unique” to the Cape’s police department.
“It’s a major element of our fleet management study,” he said.
Last month, King brought on board a consultant to examine fleet management citywide at $39 per hour over a three-month contract. A release date had not been set as of Thursday for the citywide study.
In conducting their study, Smith and Banyan examined existing literature and studies related to the monetary benefits and costs of an assigned vehicle program, as well as the non-monetary benefits and costs. The non-monetary elements taken into account were deployment and response, and visibility.
The monetary elements considered were maintenance and repair of the vehicles, parking or storage for the vehicles, officer productivity and replacement of the vehicles. The investigators also considered previous analyses conducted by the Cape police on its assigned vehicle program.
“The bottom line from the study is most of the cost of the assigned vehicle program is absorbed early on in the program,” Smith said.
Once the vehicles are bought, the program is less expensive to maintain.
According to the study, the results “clearly demonstrate that the current AVP (assigned vehicle program) is the most cost effective” in the one-year, three-year and seven-year term. The study concluded “that the more an agency pools its vehicles, the greater the cost.”
The estimated cost to operate a pooled vehicle program for one year was in the range of about $3.48 million to $10.09 million. The modified program was in the range of about $2.40 million to $6.66 million, while the current vehicle program costs about $2.31 million.
The estimated cost for the pooled program varied over the seven-year time frame, with the lowest coming in during the second year at $2.02 million, but as the bottom-end number. The same year the high-end figure: $4.03 million.
The modified program also varied in cost over the seven years. The lowest estimated figure, again the low-end number, was during year seven at $1.71 million. For that same year, the estimated cost ranged up to $2.45 million.
“Moving from an assigned vehicle program to a pooled vehicles program actually includes some increases in costs, both in the short-term and in the long-term,” Smith said.
Under the current system, parking and management for the vehicles is essentially being outsourced to the officers to whom the vehicles have been assigned. Additional parking would be required in a pooled, or a modified pooled, program and the fleet would require a location from which to operate.
A 2007 study of the City of Tacoma found the assigned vehicle program saved approximately $800 per year per vehicle in additional parking costs.
“The officers are taking on those costs themselves,” Smith said.
Also, the studies they looked at determined assigned vehicles are less expensive to maintain than pooled vehicles. Pooled vehicles are used more intensively during a week than assigned vehicles because they are shared. Officers also tended to take better care of assigned vehicles, he added.
A 2007 study of the costs of assigned and pooled vehicles at the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office determined that “maintenance costs were significantly higher” for pooled vehicles, approximately $9,000, over the vehicle’s life. An assigned vehicle “had only slightly higher fuel costs — $43 — for the year.
“When provided with a vehicle, they think of it as theirs,” Smith said. “You drive your car differently than you do a rental car.”
It also takes time to load and unload equipment into a vehicle, ready a vehicle for use, check a vehicle in and out and such. In an assigned vehicle program, an officer does much of this before leaving and returning to his or her home.
“That would have to take place at the police station,” Smith said.
The Tacoma study found that it took officers 36 minutes per day — others estimated between 28 minutes and 40 minutes — to prepare a vehicle when it is being shared among officers. It would be a cost due to lost productivity.
The modified pooled program was partway between the assigned and pooled.
“You still need parking, just not as large because you’re not storing all the cars. There is still productivity costs,” Smith said. “There is still maintenance costs, as well.”
As for the non-monetary elements, the assigned vehicle program lends to quicker response times because the fleet is spread out over the city and an officer would not have to go to a central location first to pick up a vehicle.
“There is little or no controversy that AVP programs increase the opportunity for officer contacts, rapid deployment, and availability of personnel to quickly response,” the study states.
The evaluation listed examples of when rapid deployment has been used in the Cape. On the list: Hurricane Charley in 2003, a 2007 tornado that cut off electricity to many areas, a 2008 shooting at a day care center and a 2009 shooting at an eatery. Off-duty officers immediately responded for each.
In addition, the study found a link between crime deterrence and visibility, but a lack of data to “indefinitely” link assigned vehicles to deterrence.
“There is a widespread belief that there is a visibility-related advantage associated with an AVP, that, without further research, is presumed,” the study states.
In the Tacoma study, citizens perceived crime deterrence as a AVP benefit.
Smith said with a pooled vehicle program there is potentially some improvement in public perception in regards to those who view assigned vehicles as a “fringe benefit.”
“But that could be counterweighted by the potential of having a police car in the neighborhood provides some increased sense of security,” he said.
Costs not able to be factored into the study were land acquisition costs for vehicle parking, the value of citizens’ sense of safety and employee morale.
Capt. Lisa Barnes, a spokeswoman for the Cape police, reported that there are 208 marked vehicles and 119 unmarked vehicles in the agency’s fleet. This includes motorcycles, the SWAT van, Mobile Command Unit and others.
Of those 327 “vehicles,” 225 are assigned as take-home vehicles. Barnes said that of the 225, 156 are marked vehicles used by special operations and road patrol officers and 69 are unmarked units used by traffic, detectives and administrative personnel.
According to Smith and Banyan’s study, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement reported that 75 percent, or 240 police departments, had an assigned vehicle program in 2009. Of the remainder, 25 percent of the departments had a limited assigned program. Of the top 50 largest police departments, all but one had an assigned vehicle program.
“No department had purely a pooled program,” the study states.
The Cape Coral Police Department’s assigned vehicle program is restricted to officers who have completed a field training officer program and to civilian employees. Only authorized people are allowed to ride in the vehicles.
Barnes said civilian employees are not assigned a take-home vehicle unless they are on-call that night, such as a victim’s advocate.
“They have access to a vehicle for work purposes during the day,” she said.
The study also reports that the department’s marked vehicles are generally only allowed to operate within the city’s limits, except for special permission. Unmarked vehicles are allowed to operate within Lee County, but are subject to similar restrictions as marked vehicles.
While operating an assigned vehicle, officers must be prepared to respond to emergencies, according to the evaluation.
“Cape Coral’s police is fairly restrictive right now as compared to other jurisdictions,” Smith said.
The study found that assigned vehicles used for off-duty trips occur at a rate of 2.7 percent. He said it is the one place where any measurable cost savings can be found in terms of utilizing a purely pooled vehicle program.
“It is not a whole lot,” Smith said. “But it is a number.”