Is the timing right for hybrid?

      More agencies are trying green on for size. NYPD recently purchased 40 hybrid patrols that run on combination gas and electric engines. Everyone's goal in testing out alternative fuels, law enforcement or otherwise, is to save money and lessen the impact on the environment. While many consumers settle into the vehicles and find peace of mind, the same decision is bound to be more tentative for law enforcement managers. "Is this fuel efficient?" is one thing, but "Can it perform?" is the make-or-break matter.

   Common concerns with the vehicles range from power, speed and interior capacity. Not to mention the electrical load required of the modern-day police unit. Cars today not only have to drive fast and have a secure backseat, they have to accommodate laptops, cell phones, video and big angry suspects in the backseat.


   Certainly when agencies began seriously looking at the alternative vehicles a few years back, the climbing cost of gas was a big factor. But now that fuel costs have significantly decreased again — to $2 a gallon in some areas — where does that leave hybrids?

   Jerry Newbury, fleet manager for the Texas Department of Public Safety, feels this is definitely a concern of the fuel-effecient vehicles. "You're talking maybe never recouping the additional cost at those prices. Back when gas was $4.50, $5.00 a gallon, maybe you had a chance." The other part of it, says Newbury, is most agencies typically don't keep their cruisers long enough to recoup dollars. The Texas fleet turns their black and whites at 80,000 miles.

   When West Lafayette (Ind.) PD tried out flex fuel last year spurred by the high cost of gasoline, the savings didn't come. Problems arose when officers had to drive outside their district to fuel up. "When we factored in the drive time to the closest vendor, and then the loss of miles per gallon, it just didn't pan out," says Capt. Mike Francis. On the plus side, he points out the agency didn't find any adverse reactions like sputtering or loss of power with the vehicles. "The officers didn't notice any difference other than the distance they had to drive to fill up. We were really excited to try it."

   The Overland Park (Kan.) Police Department had limited experience with hybrid vehicles (they've had two for some time), but is currently in the process of buying 15 to 20 more with stimulus funds. Rather than focusing on the cruiser itself and what it can do, Chief John Douglass says the department instead chose to rethink its deployment of cars.

   "When I first started 36 years ago, every car in the fleet was the same. Over time these cars have developed all kinds of other things: computers, video, assault rifles, etc. We came to realize we needed to look at things differently; that not every car is patrol worthy or patrol capable."

   Douglass envisions the department's hybrids as being transportation oriented and having a greener footprint and less fuel usage — an ideal vehicle for detective, non-cop and D.A.R.E. units.

   Newbury agrees that hybrids may be most beneficial in a non-patrol capacity. In his opinion, they're definitely not a car for the hot Texas highway. He says they constantly tell troops to limit their idling if they can. But, he adds, "Let's face it: It's 110 degrees and when they're sitting on the side of the highway they're not going to turn that motor off; it's hot and they're running the AC. You can only do so much unfortunately." He goes on to say that questions remain whether the vehicles are police pursuit-rated by the manufacturer, and whether they can handle the stresses of pursuit driving.

A city kind of car — for now

   Aside from non-patrol use, hybrids just might make the most sense in a low-speed, city environment (hence NYPD's recent adoption of the alternative vehicles) where the bulk of the use is in and around town. "They don't make their money at high speeds; that's not what the hybrid's about," says Newbury. "I just can't foresee highway patrols looking at them to gain any benefit, because the benefit's just not there for high-speed, long-distance highway-type driving."

   Cost savings will always break down differently for anyone considering greener vehicles, depending on each individual circumstance. But only time will tell if, and how, hybrids can benefit agencies in their regular patrol. Is it large enough to transport a suspect behind a cage in the back? Can it hold all the gear officers need? Is it fast enough to chase down most vehicles on the road?

   "I'm not sure hybrid technology is it for law enforcement yet," says Newbury. "I think there's probably more technology come, hopefully in the near future."