There are certain things only a patrol vehicle can do. Then there are other tasks for which they are not so well-suited — ones that alternative modes of transportation, such as electric vehicles (EV,) scooters and transporters, ATVs, utility vehicles (UV), personal watercraft (PWC), even one-man armored devices can perform more efficiently and cost effectively.

Electric vehicles in particular are getting a lot of attention these days, thanks to the dual concerns over rising gas prices and emissions, says Brian Wynne, president of the Electric Drive Transportation Association (EDTA), a Washington, D.C.-based organization dedicated to the promotion of electric drive transportation. According to Wynne, inquires to the association have quintupled in the last year, many coming from all manner of fleet operators, including law enforcement agencies.

"Although there are limitations of speed and range, EVs can perform some law enforcement functions currently being covered by large sedans," he says. "They have all the proper lighting and safety features, and have zero fuel consumption. You can plug them into a normal outlet. They're quiet, and operate very well off-road. They also do well in areas trying to reduce emissions in order to maintain federal funding. And," Wynne adds, "there is certainly goodwill associated with these vehicles."

Melissa Brandao, national sales and marketing director for Zap Personal Transportation Technologies, points out that reducing greenhouse emissions is a key reason city fleets across the country are making it a policy to purchase more alternative fuel vehicles. "The scientific community is overwhelmingly warning about the effect of these emissions on global climate change. Sonoma County, California, has formed a countywide campaign to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 10 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2010. Many other municipalities across the country are starting to adopt similar programs."

Taking a "new" ride

Unique, specialty vehicles are being incorporated into law enforcement fleets for all the above reasons. Here's a review of some ways agencies are using these vehicles.

  • In Plymouth Township, Pennsylvania, the police department relies on four Chariots PTVs — a three-wheeled, Personal Transportation Vehicle — to patrol bike and walking paths, park and recreation areas, parking lots, and even inside shopping malls (the vehicle can fit through a standard door width), says Chief Carmen Pettine.
  • The Arlington County (Virginia) Sheriff's Office purchased two battery-operated Segway PTs — a two-wheeled Personal Transporter — last fall, and started using them this spring to serve civil processes in its downtown area, says Sheriff Beth Arthur.
  • Philadelphia, Pennsylvania's Drexel University Department of Public Safety counts hybrid patrol cars and SUVs, 25 bikes, three Segways, and four Chariots among its vehicle fleet, says Bernard Gollotti, senior associate vice president.
  • Albuquerque, New Mexico, police use two Segways to patrol the downtown area as part of their community policing efforts, as well as for special events, says patrolman First Class, Jerome Armijo. He recalls how he once walked a 10-hour shift (even in the middle of summer). Now he covers the same area via battery power, is much less fatigued and able to respond to calls faster, he adds.
  • The Oakland County (Michigan) Sheriff's Office relies on two Chariots to patrol the courthouse complex and provide security for special events, outdoor concerts and high school athletic events, says Capt. Chuck Snarey, who adds it plans to replace these with four new models in the near future.

The Chariots have taken over some of the functions once performed by patrol cars, says Snarey.

"They save a lot of gas, as opposed to driving a patrol car around in the parking lot all day long," he explains. "Plus, we have a large area we're responsible for and limited resources. We only had a few cars designated to patrol this and also several officers on foot [these are the ones now using the Chariots]. Since the Chariots allow for better coverage of the area, we were able to take the patrol cars and put them to other uses."

Pushing the benefits

Oakland County's experience is typical — agencies are finding these kinds of devices not only reduce measurable costs, such as fuel, but also help officers do their jobs more efficiently and faster — as Arthur can attest. The process servers that work Arlington's downtown area have to contend with heavy traffic and, subsequently, parking issues.

"Parking patrol cars can be a problem," she explains. "You have to park, walk, move the car again and struggle to find more parking. Now, officers transport the Segways to the area they're working, park the car in one spot and can serve the whole area without having to move the car. They can even take them inside the building. Officers love them. It speeds up the whole serving process."

There is also the better access these machines offer, says Pettine "They can go where larger vehicles, and even golf carts or ATVs, can't," he says. "They're especially valuable in emergencies in areas not easily accessible to vehicles. Officers can respond much faster on these than on foot."

And they don't get as tired, he adds, which offers decided advantages.

"We have a lot of shoplifting in the malls," Pettine adds. "We've had criminal apprehensions in malls. The shoplifter got fatigued from running and the Chariot driver was not fatigued at all."

And then there's the PR value — they're almost as good as being on a horse in terms of the attention they attract. They make officers much more visible and approachable, say those interviewed.

"It's a very non-threatening look. And it's like a magnet for kids," says Pettine, who adds that the Plymouth Township PD uses its Chariots as a PR tool, for example, riding in parades, escorting Santa and handing out candy at Halloween.

Gollotti agrees. "The Segway HTs broke down the barriers between our officers in vehicles and the community, taking our community policing initiatives to an entirely new level," he says.

Better yet they increase man-power without actually putting more officers on the beat. "We are learning more every day about how law enforcement is using these vehicles," says Jim Murphy, director of business development for American Chariot Company. "A lot of people tell us the Chariot is a force multiplier," he says. "They may have one Chariot and one officer, but it allows that officer to do the work of three. It allows you to get more out of your officers."

Other ways to move

Gasoline-powered vehicles, such as ATVs and personal watercraft (PWC), step in where patrol vehicles cannot and are essential components of many law enforcement fleets. Also, don't overlook the more unusual ones, such as the aforementioned armored device.

The decision to purchase these other types of "non-traditional vehicles" can be an easier one to make because the need may be far more apparent. If a department has many miles of beach area, extremely rugged terrain or waterways to patrol, and no other agency to provide the service, it becomes a simple decision. The need for an armored device will be apparent in the type of calls it handles and the support it provides to other nearby agencies. And as for EVs, primary considerations are a department's objectives — reducing fuel costs and emissions are the most common — and for what (non-patrol) purposes they can be used.

The San Bernardino County Sheriff's Office loves the benefits its PWC bring to the department. Officers use PWC to patrol parts of the Colorado River as well as several lakes, says Corp. Dave Burgess. The sheriff's office has eight to 12 PWC from Honda, acquired through a dealer loan program.

"They're great for maneuvering in large groups of people and accessing areas boats can't go," says Burgess. In spite of the PWC's size, he is able to stow a rescue jacket, ropes, other water rescue equipment, and personal items and police gear on board.

Scooters are another option agencies shouldn't overlook, particularly with today's sky-rocketing gas prices. "Scooters reduce response times to emergency situations and crowd or traffic control duty," says Bill Peirce, president and CEO of Cobra Powersports. "Because scooters are not much larger than a standard bicycle, officers adapt quickly, parking is as easy as a bike, and transporting them to special events is simple."

Meanwhile, an ATV can perform much of what a pickup truck can do — for a lot less money, says Glen Hansen, communications manager for American Suzuki Motor Corp.

"Maintenance costs are reduced, storage costs are reduced, and these more nimble machines can get to places larger vehicles cannot," he continues. "Beach patrol, for example, can be much easier on ATVs and the machines have less impact on the environment than a full-sized pickup truck or SUV often used by beach patrol."

Full speed ahead

Maybe an agency is already thinking that adding two- or three-wheeled machines to its fleet is a great idea. Or, perhaps it believe they wouldn't benefit their agency at all. Before it decides one way or the other, it is critical to consider the following:

  1. Look at the services it's currently providing, says Murphy. Does the department provide event security? Does it patrol parking lots? If so, how many, how often, and how large are the lots? Does it patrol malls and other large enclosed spaces?
  2. How are these being serviced? By patrol car? On foot? And if on foot, how many officers are being used? Maybe the job is taking up four officers, when one of these machines would allow it to get done with just two, says Murphy.
  3. Does it have a community policing program, or is thinking about establishing one?
  4. Consider the area's weather patterns, suggests Peirce. Does it have at least six months a year where it could use an open-to-the-elements mode of transportation?
  5. What are the licensing requirements, if any?
  6. What are the objectives? Reduction of fuel costs? Becoming more approachable by the community? Getting greener? Reducing officer fatigue? Freeing up patrol vehicles for other uses?

In many cases an agency will find the benefits these specialty vehicles bring to the department make them worth the investment. And soon a department may join the ranks of the growing number of agencies using ATVs, EVs, UVs and one-person carriers to get officers where they want to go.

Pamela Mills-Senn is a freelance writer based in Long Beach, California.