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Back to Archives | Back to December 2008 Contents 

Controlling Costs: Fuel

By W. Dwayne Orrick, Director of Public Safety, Cordele, Georgia

Today’s Economic Crisis

The currently volatile world economy affects the United States as a whole, but it also has an impact on Main Street and local police budgets. Although controlling costs has always been a priority in police administration, the uncertainty of today’s economy, which likely will decrease tax revenues, has placed new requirements on agencies. A large part of the fuel costs incurred by local government comes from police departments. Adopting different policing procedures will assist in controlling these costs during times of economic crisis.

esponding to a downturn in the economy is never fun. Hard decisions must be made. With increases in the cost of fuel in 2008, the associated increases of other products and services have affected everyone. Law enforcement agencies are no exception; departments across the United States have been forced to reassess their operations to avoid budget shortfalls. To address budget restrictions, agencies have several options including diverting resources from other services, increasing revenues, modifying service delivery options, or reducing consumption. A critical analysis of operations helps leaders to reassess the effectiveness of operations and how best to improve the efficiency in their core service delivery strategies. The purpose of this article is to explore some of the techniques police departments have initiated in response to fuel price increases.

Redirecting Resources

When preparing budget requests, administrators have to estimate expenditures 18 to 24 months in advance. Because of this need for estimations, agencies commonly experience unanticipated shortfalls in various areas of the budget. Usually, when shortfalls happen, surpluses in other areas are used to cover the expenditures. When fuel prices increased during the past year, most agencies were able to adjust their operations to accommodate the shortfalls. Now, however, agencies are forecasting continued increases in operational costs. With a limited amount of funds available, leaders are being forced to seek alternative ways to cover these costs.

Increased Revenues

In order to fund increased expenditures, one solution is for governing authorities to find additional sources of revenue. Increasing the cost of government operations in the form of fees and property taxes is seldom popular. These increases usually have the most impact on those who are the least able to afford them, the poor and those on fixed incomes. Still, it is important for agencies to explore innovative funding sources. Earlier this year, the Holly Springs, Georgia, Police Department received national attention when it implemented a fuel surcharge of $12 to every traffic citation.1 Much like adding a tax to cigarettes, this fee passes the cost of operations to those persons who are causing the problem, traffic violators. Because this fee has generated so much attention and support, many cities are starting to explore similar options. Critics, on the other hand, argue that law enforcement agencies should not be part of the revenue-generating process.

Modifying Service Delivery

Unlike most government agencies, police departments operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Police departments are the only organizations where a person can call a central answering service, and within a few minutes, $50,000 to $100,000 worth of trained staff and equipment will arrive at the caller’s front door to resolve the problem. This approach to service delivery makes U.S. law enforcement agencies the most responsive governmental organizations in the world. Motor vehicles are at the center of this delivery strategy. Because of this, police departments often consume more gasoline than any other municipal agency. With the increasing cost of fuel, leaders are being forced to reassess this approach.

To successfully lower fuel costs and not adversely affect employee morale, it is critical to involve officers in the problem-solving process. When employees fully understand the problem and have ownership in the solution, they are more likely to work to support the reduction efforts. Fortunately, many police departments are already familiar with the problem-solving process articulated in problem-oriented policing or the Leadership in Police Organizations curriculum. If a representative group of employees and other key players (such as union representatives or the repair shop) is selected to analyze the cost and consumption problem, the group might see opportunities unique to its community. In other instances, the creativity of some proposals can be very surprising. Proposed solutions with projected savings can be developed for funding and evaluation purposes.

As part of this process, agencies can undertake an objective assessment of how officers are spending their time, which will likely identify unnecessary activities that are draining valuable resources. For example, responding to false alarms often accounts for 10 to 25 percent of calls for service. Many communities are using tight fiscal times to justify modifying their alarm ordinances to require secondary confirmation by telephone before alerting police and increasing fines for repeat offenders. In larger communities, some agencies are outsourcing responses by requiring private security services to investigate alarms before police officers are dispatched.

In addition, agency leaders should establish a system for monitoring fuel consumption. Monitoring helps to hold employees accountable. More importantly, tracking usage allows supervisors to develop patterns of usage and identify vehicles that may not be operating efficiently.

In an effort to continue providing quality services at a reduced cost, many agencies are modifying other aspects of their operations. One technique is to place greater emphasis on proactive approaches such as CompStat. Research has indicated that 10 percent of the locations law enforcement officers visit in the course of their duties are linked to 60 percent of the crimes committed in their jurisdictions.2 Using a variety of patrol techniques, including directed patrols, officers can focus their efforts on the root causes of ongoing problems and eliminate many of the symptoms. These approaches also allow officers to avoid patrolling large areas and to focus on problem areas. Thus agencies can reduce fuel consumption as well as crime and disorder.

Similarly, patrol officers are making more use of static traffic enforcement techniques. Operating speed detection devices using stationary positions enables officers to reduce the number of miles they drive. In other cases, officers are focusing their patrols at locations experiencing high numbers of collisions at the times they are most likely to occur. To maximize the savings, officers are often asked to turn off their cars when stationary. Although this can be difficult in regions of the country with extreme temperatures, some can position their units in shaded areas during hot times.

In addition to static assignments, many agencies are employing the use of foot and bicycle patrols. Although some agencies direct officers to use these approaches exclusively, others have increased visibility and mobility by having officers assigned to cars move to different locations to walk or bike. To reduce the area required to patrol and the distance to answer calls, some communities have redesigned patrol zones to be smaller. Another option is to use alternative vehicles such as all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), golf carts, and Segways. This is not to suggest these forms of transportation are useful in every community, but their application in the right areas increases productivity, improves community relations, and saves money.

Additional Fuel-Saving Tips

In an August 2004 Police Chief article titled “Maintaining Traffic Patrols in the Face of Rising Energy Costs,” Earl M. Sweeney, assistant commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Public Safety, Concord, New Hampshire, provided some tips for agencies seeking to reduce fuel consumption that are still relevant today:

  • Check tire pressure. Officers should be required to check tire pressures frequently and keep tires inflated to the manufacturer’s recommended pressures.

  • Fill up when it’s cool outside. Whenever possible, vehicles should be fueled in the early morning or late evening, when the fuel in the underground tanks is cool and less fuel loss occurs through evaporation.

  • Stress vehicle maintenance. Make sure whoever is responsible for maintaining the fleet faithfully schedules vehicles for tune-ups, including new spark plugs, air filters, and emissions system checks.

  • Make better use of police motorcycles. Motorcycles consume far less fuel than patrol cars. Many departments have motorcycles more for ceremonial purposes than patrol. Properly deployed motor units can be used to plug the gaps in coverage that occur when there is a greater emphasis on stationary cruiser patrol to conserve fuel.

For further reading, see also Karl Bickel and Deborah Spence, “High Fuel Costs: A Problem-Solving Challenge,”Community Policing Dispatch (COPS Office) 1, no. 5 (May 2008), (accessed October 29, 2008).

A few years ago, some communities would have had difficulty implementing alternatives to using an officer in a car to answer a call. Since then, U.S. residents have come to depend more heavily on other forms of communication, such as cellular telephones and e-mail. Today, some agencies are successfully implementing other ways of receiving police reports, including by telephone, fax, and Internet. By using these approaches, agencies are able to save personnel time and eliminate the need to drive to a location to gather information for a report.

Reducing Consumption

The best way to save fuel is to not use it. The number of ways departments can reduce consumption is almost unlimited. Many of the everyday behaviors officers take for granted can have a significant impact on fuel consumption. For example, they should turn off patrol units when stopped or talking with the public. When several officers are at an incident location, such as an automobile collision, emergency vehicles that are not immediately adjacent to traffic can turn off their cars. Newer electronics equipment can be operated safely without draining a vehicle’s electrical system.

Many departments have begun to deploy two-officer units that are assigned typically to priority calls that require two officers. Although this approach limits coverage and response times, it reduces fuel consumption by up to 50 percent.

Other initiatives involve limiting the number of miles an officer can travel during a shift. In other instances, officers are asked to park their cars for a predefined period, for example, 10 minutes per hour, 25 percent of the duration of a patrol shift, or two hours per shift.

One of the most valued benefits in many agencies is a take-home car. Some communities see the elimination and limitation of take-home privileges as a necessary step toward limiting fuel costs. Limitations have included restrictions on the distance officers can travel to their residence and elimination of the vehicle for personal business, such as carrying children to school and shopping. Other departments have eliminated the use of agency vehicles for officers moonlighting at second jobs.

Practical Solutions to Short-Term Problems

It should be kept in mind that although the economy is tight now, it will improve over time. When the economy rebounds, so will the number of employment opportunities for officers. Departments that make short-term decisions that negatively affect officers’ lives may find it more difficult to retain seasoned staff in the coming year. This increased turnover and the associated financial and operational costs will far exceed the increase in fuel costs.

A more common-sense approach is to assign officers to patrol areas or precincts closer to their homes. This prevents officers from passing each other at shift changes as they travel from home to work and back. In an effort to limit the mileage consumed in commuting, departments are modifying work schedules from 8-hour shifts to shifts of 10 or 12 hours. This has been particularly effective with investigative and administrative staff.

Other cuts have included limiting or eliminating travel to training programs. In an effort to continue providing training, agencies have instituted mandatory carpooling. Carpools have also proved effective to limiting the number of cars required by commuting officers.

With the increased use of laptop computers and mobile data terminals, officers in large areas can log on and begin work when they leave home instead of having to go to the station. Similarly, officers in remote communities can work from home or other locations instead of a central office.

Leadership in the Long Term

Planning for a more long-term approach, communities are exploring the use of cars with smaller engines. Hybrid and alternative-fuel vehicles (such as those using natural gas) offer options to minimize the price volatility of and the dependence on oil.

In closing, law enforcement leaders are continually challenged with real-life issues regarding the safety, security, and quality of life within their communities. Individuals demonstrate their leadership ability and potential by facing problems directly with a positive attitude and decisive action. By sharing successful practices and using the problem-solving skills developed in other aspects of the job to combat the problem of high fuel costs, the next time fuel prices jump, police departments across the country can take the lead in their communities in overcoming these obstacles to service delivery. ■

Kentucky’s Fuel-Efficient Enforcement Strategy: Operation Safe C.H.E.C.K.

By Sherry H. Bray, Public Information Coordinator, Kentucky State Police, Frankfort, Kentucky

ith fuel prices hovering around four dollars per gallon earlier this year, law enforcement agencies were struggling with overextended operational budgets. For instance, in May 2008, the Kentucky State Police (KSP) paid $132,000 more for fuel than it did in the previous May—for 6 percent less fuel. Feeling the “pain at the pump,” the Kentucky State Police (KSP) developed a new enforcement strategy that would offset the impact fuel prices were having on the agency.

“When you’re faced with an unexpected rise in costs like we’ve experienced, you have to devise a solution,” said Rodney Brewer, KSP commissioner. “The problem is identifying that solution without changing the level of protection and enforcement currently in place across the Commonwealth.”

The KSP developed a summer enforcement campaign that they hoped would conserve fuel usage while still maintaining enforcement efforts. Operation Safe C.H.E.C.K. (Concentrated Highway Enforcement Checkpoints in Kentucky) was rolled out July 1 and ran through Labor Day weekend. The campaign strategy was to include 200 road checks statewide during this time period. The KSP utilized collision data to target specific high-crash locations in each post area; high-visibility checkpoints would be held in these locations.

Reducing the number of roving patrols while increasing stationary checkpoints decreased the amount of fuel expended. Embracing the concept of deterrence through sustained high-visibility enforcement was just one facet of the campaign. The most important goal when establishing the program was to maintain the same level of public safety.

“Regardless of the cost of fuel, you have to provide protection,” said Commissioner Brewer. “But if there are ways to offer effective law enforcement and save lives while reducing fuel costs, that’s what we’ll try to do.”

Captain Tim Lucas, commander for the KSP Highway Safety Branch, coordinated the summer checkpoint project.

“Operation Safe C.H.E.C.K allowed troopers to perform license and registration checks while also making personal contact with the public,” said Lucas.

“To keep traffic moving, some vehicles were permitted to pass without screening while others were randomly selected for inspection. The drivers who are not stopped for screening are still impacted by the visual exposure of enforcement activity,” added Lucas.

Posts were directed to keep traffic moving smoothly at checkpoint locations to limit delays.

In addition to removing impaired drivers from the road, other violations were addressed, such as driving with expired tags or without insurance and general vehicle safety operating violations. Checkpoints have also proved to be key in apprehending fugitives and drivers with suspended licenses.

Was the campaign effective? Initial data indicate that the uniformed patrol fleet reduced fuel usage by 3,770 gallons during the two-month campaign (as compared with the same time period in 2007). Operation Safe C.H.E.C.K. saved the agency $14,000 in fuel costs.

“Earlier this summer, I challenged the posts to reduce the number of roving patrols and increase stationary patrols by coordinating 200 safety road checks. Not only did they embrace the concept, they exceeded the goal by conducting 1,103 safety road checks statewide,” said Brewer.

“To maximize the effectiveness of the campaign, post commanders relied on KSP technology to pinpoint high crash zones in each post area and then established stationary safety checkpoints accordingly,” said Brewer. KSP data show that between July 1 and September 1, the agency conducted 1,103 safety checkpoints, with the following results:

  • 342 DUI arrests

  • 405 seat belt violations

  • 120 child restraint violations

  • 129 drug arrests

  • 254 suspended license violations

  • 4 stolen vehicles recovered

  • 422 other arrests

  • 35,985 vehicle safety inspections

Although Brewer was pleased with the results, he indicated that the agency will remain vigilant in reducing operational costs. “Regardless of fuel costs, we will continue to provide protection to the Commonwealth while seeking alternative methods to reduce fuel consumption.”


1Larry Copeland, “Speeders to Pay Extra for Police Fuel,” USA Today, June 18, 2008, (accessed November 4, 2008).
2See Karin Schmerler et al., A Guide to Reducing Crime and Disorder through Problem-Solving Partnerships, rev. ed. (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, July 2006), 2–3, (accessed October 29, 2008).


From The Police Chief, vol. LXXV, no. 12, December 2008. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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