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Ohio Police Department Pining for SUVs for Patrol

Imagine your work space, and shrink it to half its size. No, a third. You will see what it's like to be a cop in a cruiser, Westerville Police Chief Joe Morbitzer said.

Those cramped conditions are one reason Morbitzer is hoping to buy some bigger mobile offices for his department. He has asked the Westerville City Council to swap out six old sedans for six new Ford Interceptor utility vehicles, which offer more space not only for an officer and his equipment, but also for anyone who ends up in the back.

"It's a much more practical vehicle," Morbitzer said.

Other suburban police departments think so, too. In increasing numbers, they are ditching sleek sedans for beefier crossover SUVs that they say offer similar gas mileage with less of the repair costs. The SUVs, which are priced around $34,000, place comfort and space above speed, which suburban police chiefs say isn't much of an asset to departments that rarely see a chase. Some officers now drive SUVs in cities, including Bexley, Marysville and Dublin.

At the Sharon Township police department, every vehicle in the police fleet is an SUV. The department began buying larger vehicles in 2003, when its sedans kept ending up in the shop, Chief Donald Schwind said. After Ford unveiled its police SUV in 2012 -- one of its two replacements for its popular but discontinued Crown Victoria -- the township bought five of them.

"As long as I'm chief here, and if I have any say in it, we will stay with SUVs," Schwind said.

Police chiefs who have lobbied for larger vehicles say the SUVs offer some distinct advantages: They are more comfortable for larger and taller officers; they are more visible to the public; and they give officers a higher, better view of what is around them.

They also have four-wheel drive, which has proved invaluable this winter.

"These vehicles are so much better for us on the snowy roads," said Marysville Police Chief Floyd Golden.

Morbitzer said the SUVs also better fit the ever-expanding amount of gear -- computers, dashboard cameras, weapons, radars -- that officers need to wedge into what has become more than just a vehicle. "It's absolutely an office now," he said.

Not everyone warms to the SUV so quickly. At least one suburban department, Gahanna's, is satisfied with its Dodge Chargers and has no plans to jump on the new trend. Residents, too, don't always appreciate seeing a police sticker slapped onto what appears to be a gas-guzzler. And many officers don't like losing their slick Dodge Chargers for a cruiser that is a close relative of the minivan.

"They think those Chargers are the coolest thing," Schwind said. "And, yet ... you're going to find that the officers are uncomfortable. They're hard to get in and out of."

In Westerville, most of the 22 police cruisers are rear-wheel-drive Chargers. The chief told the city council that the cars are in the shop more than they are on the street.

City Service Director Frank Wiseman said the crossover SUV, which is basically an Explorer body on a Taurus chassis, isn't expected to increase maintenance and repair costs and idles at a rate that consumes less gas than the Charger. But the SUVs do cost more, about $2,500 apiece.

Schwind, the SUV convert who sees no police sedans in Sharon Township's future, said they are worth it.

"We're happy with them," Schwind said, "and I no longer hear complaints from our officers."

Copyright 2014 - The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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