SOS: finding solutions for a troubled Earth

April 1, 2008
Criminal justice agencies step up to the environmental plate

     It's not easy being green, at least when it comes to running a law enforcement agency.

     There are so many things that can't change — like the amount of patrol territory in your jurisdiction, the types of offenses your officers confront on a daily basis and the legal written requirements that have to be filed in connection with every offense report, incident and case.

     Without major changes in law enforcement service, overhauling the methods in which these services are delivered seem nearly impossible. Surprisingly, many chiefs and sheriffs are finding the means to bring environmental concerns to the forefront and apply them to law enforcement, even with their present constraints. It takes creative thinking, a commitment to improvement and a clear mind to sort through the hype and find what is cost-effective and what is simply the product of good public relations.

Scoot on over

     Conventional fuel-burning cars, hybrids, horses, foot patrol, bikes and flex-fuel — the New York Police Department has them all. And now the agency has added another transportation notch to its John Brown belts — NYPD is testing electric scooters.

     If you're picturing the lightweight foldable scooters on which kids race through your neighborhood, or the "drunk-mobile" that the DUI offender uses to maneuver through traffic, fuggedaboutit. These babies combine street smarts with ecological soundness and make NYPD's finest also NYPD's smartest.

     The four trial scooters look more like sleek motorcycles than scooters, and have a top speed of 60 mph with a corresponding range of 60 miles, making them a good bet for cruising the Big Apple's congested streets.

     The all-electric vehicles are certified for both highway and road travel and, according to manufacturer, Vectrix, run silently and sport zero emissions. The scooters are recharged by plugging them into a regular outlet in two hours.

     Police officials think the scooters will add both a tactical advantage, as well as contribute to the department's efforts to reduce its effect on the environment.

     Although impractical for sheriff's departments or state highway patrols, which often drive many times the amount of miles a scooter lasts at speeds well surpassing 60 mph, electric scooters work well in crowded city traffic and can easily negotiate winding, narrow streets and back alleys.

     At press time, the department is still evaluating the scooters, but other agencies have already incorporated alternative, environmentally friendly transportation into their fleets. And while a totally emission-free, cost-effective solution may not yet be a reality, there are other ways your agency can make a positive impact on the environment. All you have to do is look around.

Building blocks for the future

     If the term "solar photovoltaic system" (also known as PV) sounds like something out of Star Wars, then you need to take a trip to the Rocklin (California) Police Department.

     When Rocklin PD, with a sworn force of about 57 officers and 30 support personnel, was in the market for a new facility, they opted for a complex that saved both electricity and was kind to the environment. It may sound like something Han Solo would use to get the Millennium Falcon out of a jam, but a PV system is really a way to reduce dependence on foreign oil and rein in high electric bills.

     The 40,000-square-foot building was constructed in 2005 for $15 million. In addition to the police department, the building also houses a multi-purpose community room, an employee fitness center and an emergency command center.

     The PV system provides a renewable energy source that's emission-free. Moreover, the complex houses a covered parking garage, which is also solar-powered. SPG Solar says the system's benefits are solid:

  • The police department should realize approximately a 35-percent saving on its electricity bill.
  • Because the police department uses less electricity, it frees up a corresponding amount that can be used by the public, putting less stress on the city's system.
  • The solar power used by Rocklin PD saves the equivalent of 321 barrels of oil in greenhouse gas emissions. That's a total of 304,238 pounds of carbon dioxide prevented from release into the atmosphere via a natural gas plant.

     Depending on the cost of electrical power, the building is forecasted to save Rocklin taxpayers about $1 million over the next 25 years. To put the Rocklin project into perspective, Rocklin's efforts add up — it's the equivalent of 30 cars off the road.

     And Rocklin isn't the only agency finding ways to manage its facilities with a more earth-friendly approach. The Anaheim, California, Public Utilities operates roof-mounted distributed power generation systems called PowerGuard, manufactured by the Power Light Corp., as a means of supplementing other power sources.

     Most agencies on the alternative-power bandwagon see their investment as an "in it for the long haul" effort that will pay dividends for future generations.

'Flash' forward

     Campers understand the value of a flashlight that lasts as long as the famous bunny in the commercial, but what meets a camper's needs and the demands of law enforcement are radically different animals.

     When it comes to flashlights, law enforcement often trades ecological friendliness for performance. However, some companies have recognized the need for inexpensive, durable flashlights. Smart companies put together flashlights that don't chew batteries yet provide powerful illumination, particularly for tactical use.

     Any officer who's ever dropped a flashlight on the pavement can attest that those little bulbs are fragile, and in some of the higher-end tactical flashlights, they are also pricey to replace. LED flashlights represent one solution. TerraLUX Inc., even makes a light bulb upgrade to convert some Maglites from incandescent bulbs to LED. But in the flashlight wars, battery power is what makes or breaks a light's ecological impact.

     Some companies have manufactured flashlights that use rechargeable batteries. Pelican's 7060 LED dual-switch flashlight uses rechargeable lithium batteries. The batteries charge for approximately four hours and operate for 1 1/2 hours.

     Coast's newest entry into the energy efficient flashlight market is the LED Lenser P7, a police and military flashlight that runs 96 hours on four AAA batteries. In addition to a light output of 140 lumens, the small flashlight is 4.5 inches in length and weighs less than 7 ounces. The flashlight combines environmental responsibility with what counts most for law enforcement use — light output. "The LED is 10 times more efficient than the incandescent bulb," says Kevin Corcoran of the Portland, Oregon-based company.

     Corcoran says while most of law enforcement is transitioning from incandescent to LED, efficient power to operate police flashlights and reduce the amount of batteries in landfills is still evolving. Comparing the cost of ordinary lithium batteries used by a regular flashlight against the relatively miniscule number of batteries used by the P7, it becomes obvious departments can dramatically slash their battery budgets when opting for higher-efficiency flashlights.


     Deputy Chief Daniel Chambers of the Binghamton University Police Department, Binghamton, New York, says his department is constantly involved in an active search for ways to lower its impact on the environment. As part of that effort, the department deploys GEM (Global Electric Motorcar) vehicles around the campus for services that do not necessarily need a full-sized car, such as for escorts, building guards and parking enforcement. GEM, a Chrysler company, introduced its line of "neighborhood" vehicles approximately 10 years ago.

     The GEM vehicles, now numbering more than 35,000 on the road, are battery-powered, low-speed vehicles that travel at a maximum of 25 mph. Street-legal on most public roadways, GEM vehicles cost much less than an automobile and are many times more fuel efficient. Obviously, GEM vehicles do not have the horsepower to track down speeders, but in environments like college campuses or large parks, they are ideal — and growing in both popularity and possible applications. But Chambers says the vehicles are limited by natural obstacles such as the cold.

     "Since they don't have heaters, we don't send them out when it's icy," Chambers says. But, he notes, the GEM vehicles satisfy a need on campus, especially for after-dark patrols. "They are used for an eight-hour shift, then plugged in to recharge."

     Binghamton PD also uses the police environmental favorite — the bike patrol. "[Bikes] not only get the officer up close to the action, but it's a renewable resource," Chambers says. "Bikes can go where cars cannot."

     Bicycle patrols have become extremely popular in metropolitan police departments because they are both cost-efficient and allow for increased mobility. Bike patrols save energy, reduce wear and tear on police vehicles, produce no pollutants and keep officers in fit and fighting shape. As an added bonus, bike patrols allow officers to become better acquainted with the people who live and work in the area. The latter makes pedaling patrols good for public relations and a natural component of community policing.

     Like many departments, Binghamton looks for other ways to make itself greener. Flex-fuel vehicles, which rely on the availability of compressed natural gas, have been part of its program in the past, but lack of a nearby supply has stalled the university's flex-fuel program. Still, it remains a future option.

     Parking meters on the campus operate with a combination of solar and battery power.

     Computer-based reporting systems, such as the one Binghamton PD uses, reduce the need for paper and also save fuel.

     "[It] used to be the officer had to come in and write the reports, but now they do the report wherever they can find a wireless hot spot," he says. The hot spots, located throughout the campus, also allow the officers to provide a passive police presence — and deterrent.

     "They're still serving the public and it saves all the running back and forth," he adds.

     Although law enforcement agencies cannot always control the mountains of required paperwork, cutting back helps. And paperless is now the way to go when it comes to internal forms. An annual valuation of interdepartmental forms and procedures can lead to surprising conclusions. Many agencies haven't updated their forms in years and what worked in the 1990s may not be necessary in the 2000s. Departments can save a tree or maybe even a small forest by reducing dependence on paper forms.

Greening the fleet

     A greener building might be out of the reach of most departments, but the little things add up, so working more on computers and less on paper makes sense. Chambers touches on another angle that makes sense — taking time to evaluate your fleet.

     Police vehicles aren't known for being good on gas. During the 1970s fuel crisis, this left a lot of agencies looking for alternative ways to deploy personnel. Some rationed gasoline within their departments, giving officers a mileage quota. Others yanked officers off the street to give their cars (and their gas tanks) some downtime. Back then, alternative fuels were mostly in the conceptual stage. Now, "greening" your fleet — or at least part of it — is a real possibility.

     Tom Murray, project manager for the Corporate Partnerships Program at Environmental Defense, works with PHH Arval, a commercial fleet management company, to help fleets lower their impact on the environment through a program called PHH GreenFleet.

     PHH GreenFleet's clients include Infinity Insurance, Abbott Labs and other leading companies. The mutual goal: to help corporate — and govern — America's deployed fleets that are carbon neutral.

     According to Environmental Defense, U.S. cars and light trucks are responsible for emitting more than 300 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere each year, thereby raising the levels of carbon dioxide and contributing toward global warming. But greening a fleet doesn't simply have a positive impact on the environment, it also reduces operating costs by improving fuel economy. With shrinking budgets at nearly every level of law enforcement, focusing on innovations that can lower expenses is a popular bandwagon for taxpayers.

     "What our framework seeks to do is create a baseline for fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions," Murray says. "The baseline becomes the starting point for a more cost-effective and environmentally friendly fleet."

     Murray says agencies don't have to focus on revolutionary, overnight changes. Even small differences can have a positive impact both environmentally and budget wise.

     "Select more fuel-efficient vehicles," he advises. "You don't necessarily have to go with hybrids."

     Murray points out that if you take your present fleet's miles per gallon and purchase cars with a rating of 1 to 1.5 mpg higher, your savings over a year's time could add up to thousands of dollars, depending on fleet size how often patrol cars are on the road; Think about the greenhouse gases that won't be emitted.

     Another good bet — try not to allow vehicles to idle as much. Obviously, idling can't be completely avoided, but whenever possible, officers should turn off the engine. Murray also says that paying attention to maintenance can help keep the air cleaner because a well-maintained fleet performs more efficiently.

     With automobile manufacturers designing more fuel-efficient models each year, the choices are becoming more varied and the public more concerned with the resources we're burning.

A better tomorrow

     As in the private sector, law enforcement should realize that its investment in the future is a lot like a retirement account in which you stash money away for a time when you need it. If you don't save, you have nothing to live on down the road. And if people don't become better stewards of the environment, the future could be very dim, indeed.

     But, due to the nature of law enforcement's mission, many of the options available to private companies and individuals are difficult to fit into a more environmentally friendly format. Manufacturers are just now finding ways to help make police agencies green.

     Change, although it is coming, will be slow and deliberate, but there's no doubt it will come. Environmentalists say that's a given. And, just as community policing seemed like a radical direction 30 years ago, driving hybrid cars, working with alternative and renewable energy sources and moving from a tree-based to digital records systems all go a long way toward workable solutions.

     A 12-year veteran of police work, Carole Moore has served in patrol, forensics, crime prevention and criminal investigations. She may be reached at [email protected].

About the Author

Carole Moore

A 12-year veteran of police work, Carole Moore has served in patrol, forensics, crime prevention and criminal investigations, and has extensive training in many law enforcement disciplines. She welcomes comments at [email protected]

She is the author of The Last Place You'd Look: True Stories of Missing Persons and the People Who Search for Them (Rowman & Littlefield, Spring 2011)

Carole can be contacted through the following:

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