Officers' Free Rides Questioned In Fairfax

By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 18, 2008

At a time when gas prices are at record highs, more than 370 of Fairfax County's police cars, trucks and sport-utility vehicles are taken home by officers every day, with taxpayers footing the bill for their gas, maintenance, insurance and tolls.

Officers estimate that the vast majority of the vehicles travel outside Fairfax, as 70 percent of the department's 1,431 officers live outside the county. In many cases, they live far outside, including in Annapolis and West Virginia, and in Orange, Spotsylvania, Rappahannock and Stafford counties in Virginia.

For many years, Fairfax has had no policy governing how far a take-home car could go or how it could be used when an officer was off duty. That allowed the cars to be taken on hunting or fishing trips, officers said. Some officers who have a take-home car don't have a personal vehicle.

Fairfax Police Chief David M. Rohrer is creating rules about the location and use of take-home cars, and an e-mail he sent to officers recently said that some of them might have to seek "alternative transportation or a personal vehicle if they have been dependent on a take-home vehicle."

But after reducing the fleet over the past year, he is not taking additional steps to take away the cars or give more cars to officers who live in Fairfax.

The six police departments adjacent to Fairfax have policies allowing officers who live in their jurisdiction to take a car home, both as a crime deterrent and an incentive to keep officers living in their department's county or city. Many of those are marked patrol cars. But Fairfax has no such policy for in-county cars, a difference that angers patrol officers.

Rohrer said he does not have enough vehicles, although his fleet of 1,304 is the second-largest in the area, behind Prince George's County. About 30 percent of Fairfax's fleet goes home with officers each day, which is comparable to neighboring departments.

The main differences are how far the cars travel and whether they go out of the department's jurisdiction. Even though Fairfax does not keep records of how many cars leave the county or where they go, officials generally acknowledge that most of them leave the jurisdiction. Other similar-size police departments allow only a small percentage of their cars to leave the jurisdiction. In Montgomery County, only 10 percent of take-home cars leave the county. In Prince George's, it is 3 percent.

Rohrer defended the assignment of 373 take-home cars as necessary to maintain readiness for emergencies, adding that he would like to add about 20 more take-home vehicles. The cars, all unmarked but fully equipped, make it more efficient for officers to get back to Fairfax.

But patrol officers, who comprise the majority of the department and do not get take-home cars, point out that cars are assigned to entire units of detectives and commanders, which are rarely called out on nights or weekends. For example, cars are assigned to 52 burglary detectives and supervisors, 11 financial crimes investigators, eight school resource officers and commanders of non-emergency divisions such as the police academy and administrative support, personnel resources and technical services bureaus.

Rohrer said issuing take-home cars is cheaper than hiring more officers to work nights or weekends. "Right now, we are leveraging our resources and bringing them in case by case," Rohrer said. "Cars cost money? Yes, they do cost money. So do people. And more people cost more money than cars."

Rohrer's new policy will require future hires to live within 30 miles of the county line to get take-home cars. Officers already with cars will not have to relinquish them, the chief said.

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