Detective Lieutenant Barry M. Baker (ret.) is a 32 year veteran of the Baltimore Police Department.
Police cars pass you with lights and sirens, and you think to yourself, “That could be me;” racing to the rescue in such a grand manner. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to use your lights and siren, and you’ll tire of them soon enough. You’ll spend a lot of time inside police cars, and you need to understand your responsibilities for care and maintenance.
There’s a lot more to the operation of a police car beyond emergency response driving and vehicle pursuits. You need to understand that police cars can affect your career in more ways than you might imagine. It’s safe to say that the majority of disciplinary actions against police officers result from circumstances involving police cars.
Few people would purposely drive their personal cars over curbs, but police officers do it with police cars with regularity. If you’re ever foolish enough to drive onto a golf course, prepare yourself for a lot of pain.
Responsibility for Police Cars
Some police officers take the responsibility for their police cars seriously right from the beginning. Some have to be burned once to get the message, and others exhibit a serious learning disability when it comes to learning from experience.
Police officers are killed in traffic accidents at a higher rate than any other line of duty death. They maintain an abysmal record for property damage accidents, and they hit any fixed object imaginable. Ditches, depressions and speed bumps claim their toll as well.
Police departments have been trying to solve the problem of vehicle abuse for decades, and they’re still behind the curve. Without a doubt, the best solution has been the “take home car” policy. When a police officer has the exclusive use of a police car, that officer is going to treat it as his or her own.
Pretty Police Car
As a special operations lieutenant, I had the district traffic officer under my command. The department had purchased nine Ford Mustangs; one for each district traffic officer.
That was one pretty police car, and it had all the police markings. It didn’t have a roof bar light, but it was loaded with grill lights; alternating flashing headlights; and red and blue lights for the front and rear windows. The right side bucket seat was replaced with the latest computer hardware giving the interior the appearance of a cockpit.
In a police department where the duplication of police car keys was conducted like a hobby, the traffic officer urged that the keys to the Mustang be restricted to himself and his sergeant. Above the objections of the shift commanders, the district commander granted the restrictions on the Mustang.
One overcast day I was passing by one of the traffic officer’s locations where he would conduct radar enforcement. The traffic was light, and I had to smile when I saw the officer using the slow time to put a fresh coat of wax on the Mustang.
Cops simply hate to be denied anything, and I fought a lot of battles with shift commanders who demanded use of the Mustang for their own traffic enforcement initiatives. I’d simply point out to them that they already had police cars with red and blue lights and sirens.
Needless to say, that Mustang had a longer — and painless — life span than its eight brothers.
Since take home police cars are rare, you’ll be operating a police car that’s in use 24 hours a day. It is so important that you conduct a thorough inspection of that police car each time you take possession. If you accept a car with unreported body damage; undercarriage damage, or any other problem like no oil or transmission fluid, it’s on you. If you think that another police officer would not, knowingly, pass on damage to you, you’ve got a lot to learn.
Remember those curbs? Let’s say that during your tour of duty, you get a flat tire. You go to your trunk only to find that the spare tire is flat. Okay, one of the other officers in your squad loans you his spare. Once you’re up and running, you head for the shop to get his spare and your flat spare replaced. As the mechanic removes your spare from the trunk, he points out to you that the rim is bent. What’s a bent rim mean? It means that you just bought yourself an accusation of vehicle abuse.
A bent tire rim is a traffic accident. If you’re really lucky, the accident was previously reported, and the tire was not replaced as it should have been. However, that possibility is about as remote as any possibility can get. Another indication of a cover up might be evident by the spare tire being bolted down with the big dent underneath. Since you failed to inspect the tire, the responsibility for the abuse falls on you.
Assignment of Responsibility
This example of the assignment of responsibility may seem arbitrary, but it really isn’t. Had you inspected the tire, the responsibility would have been placed on the officer you relieved. That officer may be as innocent as you if he or she had not inspected the tire. Things could get worse. Suppose you didn’t get the flat, but the officer who relieves you discovers the bent rim, and he or she is actually the one who bent the rim.
When it comes to accepting responsibility for vehicle abuse, some police officers justify their avoidance of that responsibility by passing along the abuse as in the tire example. Their warped thinking dictates that they have to be caught versus simply accepting responsibility. They seem to forget that criminals think the same way.
Damage and abuse aren’t the only things for which you must inspect. Contraband frequently has a way of finding its way into police cars. The most common items of contraband will consist of guns, knives, drugs or drug paraphernalia. Aside from the bad guys leaving bad things in your car, you have to remember that internal investigation units like to put drugs, or items that look like CDS (controlled dangerous substances) in your car to see if you properly recover and submit the drugs. It’s pretty easy to spot the cop stings. Bad guys try to conceal the contraband while the IAD will leave the contraband in plain view. You can easily avoid the nuisance of the sting by always locking your car.
Traffic Accidents Involving Police Cars
In all probability, your department will hold you to a higher standard when it comes to assessing your level of fault in a traffic accident. Your department could classify departmental vehicle accidents as “preventable” and “non-preventable.” Striking a fixed object will always earn you the “preventable” label. Let’s say you’re responding to an emergency with lights and siren. You come to a red light, and you come to a full stop before proceeding as departmental procedure requires.
You make sure the traffic with the green light is stopped. However, as you enter the intersection, you’re struck by some idiot who uses the curb lane to pass the stopped traffic. While the operator of the other car will be cited for failing to yield to an emergency vehicle, the accident will still be classified as “preventable” since you didn’t proceed without getting hit.
Classifying Accidents for Police Cars
About the only time your accident will be classified as “non-preventable” is when you’re rear ended, or your car is struck when legally parked and unattended. Let’s say you stop in a traffic lane to block a traffic accident scene or some other obstruction, and your rear ended. As long as your emergency lights are activated, the accident would be “non-preventable.” If you fail to activate your emergency lights…well, you know the answer.
If you take notice of unattended police cars, you might get the impression that police officers are not proficient at parallel parking even when a space of three car lengths exists. Don’t get in the habit of just parking in a traffic lane, because you can. If you’re responding to an emergency, that’s one thing. If you’re just too lazy to walk a few steps, you could regret leaving your car where someone lazier and less attentive than you runs into it.
A Most Embarrassing Circumstance
I am amazed that more police cars aren’t stolen. It is no exaggeration when I say that better than ninety percent of police officers, under varying circumstances; leave their police cars unattended with the car running and the key in the ignition. The most common instance is when the officer jumps from his or her car to engage in a foot chase. Imagine yourself chasing some guy in a big circle only to watch him jump into your police car and speed off…and it’s happened.
A big city police officer left his department to take a job as a police chief in a smaller jurisdiction. Unfortunately, along with his experience, he took a bad habit with him. He left his car running and unattended along with the shotgun. Sure, the shotgun was locked in the trunk, but the key for the trunk was on the ring with the ignition key. Having the car stolen was bad enough, but having the suspect commit suicide with the chief’s shotgun was a lot worse.
Every time I’d question officers as to why they left their cars running and unattended, the response was always the same, “I didn’t have time.”
You always have time. After you put the gear shift into park, you simply turn off the ignition and remove the key in one continuous movement.
Related Content for Police Cars