By Earl M. Sweeney, Assistant Commissioner, New Hampshire Department of Public Safety, Concord, New Hampshire
Not since the oil embargo of several decades ago has U.S. law enforcement faced such a serious challenge from rising petroleum costs. The price of gasoline at the retail pumps has risen above $2 per gallon, nationwide. And along with the increased cost of gasoline comes upward pressures in the price of other products based in whole or in part on petroleum consumption, including tires, motor oil and lubricants, heating fuel, and electricity, all of which will stress already tight police budgets.
Double-Digit Increases Are the New Norm
Typically, state and local police purchase their gasoline in bulk and are exempt from state and federal fuel taxes. In some rural areas, police cars may be fueled at retail stations and the departments required to file rebate forms and claim tax refunds after the fact. The New Hampshire Department of Safety has recently experienced a 26.7 percent increase in the price of a gallon of gas deposited into our bulk tanks at headquarters and at the state police troop stations around the state. The price has risen from $1.01 a gallon a few months ago to $1.28 with our last delivery (May 2004). Because we use more than a half-million gallons of gasoline a year, this price increase leaves a six-figure hole in our fuel budget. Law enforcement agencies nationwide, from small agencies with one police car to highway patrols with a fleet of thousands of cars, are facing the same problem. Granted, some police managers can make up for some of the added fuel cost by transferring funds from other accounts, but few can absorb the whole increase this way. The prospect of receiving substantial budget increases in these days of looming government deficits is not bright.
Lesson Learned from 1970s
This leaves law enforcement agencies with basically two alternatives: drastically cut preventive patrols, or adopt more fuel-efficient ways to do business. Past experience shows that when preventive patrols are cut, traffic crashes, including fatalities, increase, as do preventable crimes. Drastic cuts in patrol and such strategies as assigning two officers to formerly one-person units and limiting patrols to a restricted number of gallons of gas per shift should come as only a last resort, after all other alternatives have been tried and failed to plug the gaping hole in the department's budget.
Strategies some of us adopted during the oil embargo are applicable today. Many of these strategies can help agencies face down today's high fuel prices as well as they did then. The law enforcement executive needs to consider the implementation of these strategies now, before the fuel deficit makes a large budget impact.
Revise training programs. Police academy driver training programs for recruits, and in-service defensive driver or emergency vehicle operator programs for veteran officers, can be revised to include information on driving habits and strategies to conserve gasoline through more economical driving practices during routine patrols and for administrative assignments. These include such tactics as eliminating unnecessary idling, avoiding fast acceleration when not on a call or trying to catch up to a violator, anticipating the need to apply brakes and slowing down well in advance, and driving within the speed limits.
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.
Insist on supervisory oversight. Patrol supervisors should run comparative data on fuel consumption by individual officers and compare these with activity levels to be sure that officers are practicing the good driving habits that they have been taught. Supervisors should check patrol cars and ensure the drivers are maintaining adequate tire pressures.
Patrol smarter, not less. Driving around aimlessly is not necessarily the best way to patrol. More emphasis should be placed on directed patrol tactics, concentrating on locations where high numbers of crashes are occurring, sections of the beat with the highest incidence of crime or calls for service, and critical infrastructure that are potential targets for terrorism. Officers should be encouraged to park at least 15 minutes out of every hour, to watch a stop sign, traffic light, or no-passing zone for violators, a school bus stop, or in some other area where fixed surveillance can deter crime and crashes or produce other results.
Use aircraft. If aircraft are available, a small cadre of officers on the ground stopping speeding vehicles clocked from the air can result in more citations per gallon of gas, as well as turning up violators who are difficult or impossible to apprehend with ground units alone.
Make more use of stationary radar or lidar. Many of the most serious crashes occur on surface streets and rural roads, rather than on high-speed highways. Many of these locations are curvy and narrow, making it difficult to pull vehicles over. The old-fashioned two-officer radar details with one officer radioing ahead to a second unit to pull the speeder over in a safe location can enable you to run radar in areas where it would be otherwise impractical to do so.
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.
Solicit suggestions from the field. Share with the officers the problems the department is facing with fuel prices. They know from experience with their personally owned vehicles what the cost restraint the agency is facing. When they recognize the problem and realize that every extra dollar that is put into the gas tanks is a dollar that is not available for salaries, benefits, and better equipment, some of the most creative ideas may come from the men and women that are on the road doing the job every day.
Act Now, Not Later
Now is the time to come to grips with the high price of energy. It is not likely to come down in the near future. The law enforcement agency's governing body will be asking what plans are implemented to cope with the problem, and the chief will need to have good answers for them.■