Indianapolis patrolman Michael Hewitt, a 20-year police veteran, has been taking a car home since 1994. "The benefit to the community far outweighs the benefit" to him, he says.
(Photo: Kelly Wilkinson, Indianapolis Star)
Tim Evans and John Tuohy, USA TODAY
INDIANAPOLIS - When a late-night gas explosion damaged more than 80 homes in an Indianapolis neighborhood last month, many off-duty Indianapolis police officers rushed to the scene to help.
"A lot of those officers came and got there so quickly," says Bill Owensby, president of the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, "because they had take-home cars."
Owensby says "operational readiness" is one of many benefits of police officers having vehicles they can take home. But early next year, many of those Indianapolis officers will begin paying a fee for those cars.
The fee planned in Indianapolis is part of a growing national trend as tight budgets and increasing gasoline prices force law enforcement agencies to reconsider policies about officers taking home their police vehicles - a widespread practice some see as a perk and others view as a valuable crime-fighting tool.
Darrel Stephens, executive director of Major Cities Chiefs Association, which represents leaders of the 63 largest law enforcement agencies in the United States, says many larger departments have in recent years examined or adopted cost-sharing policies or other restrictions on take-home cars.
"Departments, because of fiscal constraints, are being asked to curtail the use of take-home vehicles, or are taking them away from some officers or charging fees and setting limits on off-duty use," said James Pasco, director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, the USA's largest police labor organization.
Pasco says he understands the motivation behind such debates but thinks a narrow focus on dollars-and-cents doesn't account for valuable intangibles of take-home vehicles, such as the ability of officers to quickly respond to incidents, even when they're off duty, and the crime-deterring effect of having more vehicles visible in a community.
"This is not a privilege," Pasco says. "It really is about maximizing response times and the ability of officers to be where they need to be."
In some places, such as North Miami Beach, Fla., the discussion already has resulted in ending the take-home policy for most of the department's roughly 100 police officers, city spokesman Mark Perkins says.
He says officers still are assigned cars but leave them at the station at the end of their shifts.
Other cities, including Indianapolis, are taking a less drastic approach: allowing officers to continue taking home their police cars but charging fees to cover gasoline and maintenance associated with personal use.
In Louisville, new officers must work for three years, instead of only one, to get a take-home vehicle, according to Chief Steve Conrad. That is a provision of a new policy that took effect in November that also assesses officers with take-home cars a gasoline fee if their vehicles are used for a second job.
Not all departments are moving to limit or charge for off-duty use of police vehicles. The small city of Madison in southern Indiana recently launched an "experiment" in which members of a local emergency response team were issued take-home vehicles - something other officers with the 27-member department don't have.
Police Chief Dan Thurston says the trial began when the department spent its vehicle allotment on used police cars, instead of buying new vehicles. That allowed the department to obtain more vehicles and, in turn, provide the take-home cars to about a half-dozen officers.
The thinking behind the plan, Thurston says, is that the emergency response team members are more likely to be called out when they are off duty than other officers. But he also is hoping the trial helps reduce crime.
"We haven't done this long enough to have any data to prove that," Thurston says, "and it is a hard thing to quantify because you never really know what crimes might have been prevented by an off-duty officer stopping at a convenience store or parking a car in their driveway."
In Indianapolis, the plan is expected to cost officers from $64 to $150 a month, depending on how the cars are used and where they live. About one-fourth of Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department's 1,795 officers, who use the cars only to go to work and back, will continue to get them free.
"This was the result of months of negotiation, and we had to strike a balance that brought significant revenue without gouging the officers," says Valerie Washington, chief financial officer for the Department of Public Safety.
Evans and Tuohy also report for The Indianapolis Star. Contributing: Mark Vanderhoff, The Courier-Journal, Louisville