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.
Michael Thompson, president of the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy, said long-distance driving not only runs up gas and maintenance costs but also adds mileage to the vehicles so that new cars must be bought sooner. "If they're taking them home to Fredericksburg and back, there's something about that that doesn't sit well," Thompson said. "And my bet would also be that before they take it home, it's filled up at a county gas pump."
Thompson said making cars available to the lower-paid patrol officers would also serve as an incentive to stay with the police department rather than moving to higher-paying federal jobs, which often lure well-trained officers.
Fairfax Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) said that given the high price of gasoline, the county has to be careful about its cars. "Take-home vehicles have to be limited to a strict as-needed basis and within a reasonable radius of the county," he said. He added that 30 miles, as proposed by Rohrer, is too far.
"In defense of the chief, this is a difficult thing to do," Connolly said. "He has to manage the morale of the department. But the taxpayers cannot afford to be sending hundreds of vehicles home long distances from the county. If it made sense once, it doesn't seem to make sense any longer."
Supervisor Pat S. Herrity (R-Springfield) said he wanted to see more cars stay in Fairfax. "I am fully supportive of our uniformed officers that live in Fairfax County driving more cars home," Herrity said. "It's something we should be working toward."
Patrol officers grumble quietly, afraid to offend their superiors and their colleagues with cars. "Once members of the department are given a take-home car, they then move far away from the county," one officer wrote in a letter to the supervisors. "How much gas and pollution are they causing? Would they live that far away if they had to buy their own gas and drive their own car? Would they choose to live in the county?" Many officers say they live outside Fairfax because of its high cost of living. According to county records, the average salary for police officers in Fairfax was about $86,000 last year.
About 100 officers are officially on "standby" status at any one time, Rohrer said. The additional 273 vehicles are issued, Rohrer said, for emergencies when multiple officers and commanders need to be called to duty on short notice.
As an example, he cited the department's SWAT team, which has 12 officers. To have a SWAT team on duty every hour of the day would require an additional 36 officers, he said.
The chief said that hiring one officer costs about $100,000, figuring in salary, benefits and other factors. Instead, all 12 SWAT officers are given county vehicles and "on-call pay," which is one extra hour's pay every weekday and two extra hours pay on Saturday and Sunday.
"What's the cost of 12 on-call pay [officers] and gas?" Rohrer asked. "I know it's cheaper" than hiring 36 more officers. "It is expensive, I don't disagree. But it's more expensive to hire people. . . . I think right now what we're doing is more cost-effective and efficient."
In most units, only one person is officially designated as "on call" and given on-call pay. But often an entire unit of five to 10 detectives has cars. Rohrer said they all have cars in case he needs more than one person from a unit in an emergency.
Even the department's critics agree that officers in SWAT, homicide and narcotics units need cars and are frequently called back. But among some detective units that are seldom called in, few or none of the investigators live in Fairfax, meaning they run up higher gas costs and take longer to return to the county when called in.
Gas and maintenance costs for take-home cars add up. In the 12-month period ending April 30, county records show, Fairfax police used about $3.5 million in gas, at an average cost of $2.54 a gallon. The take-home cars used about $1 million of gas. The county does not pay taxes on the gas it buys, county officials said, and pays about 50 cents a gallon less than the public is charged and 62 cents less a gallon for diesel. So the county is paying about $3.50 a gallon, or a dollar per gallon more than last year.
Similarly, police vehicle maintenance cost the county more than $5.1 million in the 12 months ending April 30. The take-home cars would account for about $1.5 million.
Police were unable to provide a breakdown of what types of vehicles are being driven home. Police records show that of the 1,308 vehicles in the fleet, more than 240 are SUVs or pickup trucks, which are not very energy-efficient.
The Fairfax police officers' union, which doesn't always agree with the chief, supports Rohrer on take-home cars. Officer Marshall Thielen, the union president, said: "If we were staffed as we needed to be staffed, we wouldn't need county cars going home as an operational necessity."
The two area departments most similar to Fairfax in size of force and county are Montgomery and Prince George's. Both have agreements with their unions that allow almost all officers living in the county to have a car but strictly limits who may take a car out of the county. As a result, all but a few officers who live outside those two counties and have an assigned car must park it near the county line and drive their personal cars home.