Between December 1983 and August 1984, a select group of Alexandria police officers put 9,630 miles on their patrol cars -- while off duty. These same officers answered 225 calls, made 41 arrests, and, according to one estimate, saved the city $8,272.
The officers were participants in the public safety department's patrol car take-home program, under which 17 officers who live in the city are assigned patrol cars on a full-time basis and allowed to take them home.
According to Master Police Officer Bernie McMahon, the program has been a success. Despite a lack of hard statistics, he says the program does have a deterring effect on crime.
The program also is saving wear and tear on the city's patrol cars, McMahon says. And, he said, morale is high among patrol officers who participate in the program, which allows them to use their patrol cars to travel to and from work, on personal business, to court and police training activities.
Officers in the program must inform a dispatcher when they are in their cars, in case they are needed to answer a call.
According to McMahon, approximately 80 percent of the time an officer is using the take-home car off-duty, he or she is traveling to or from work. The other 20 percent of travel time is about equally divided between personal business and trips to and from court or police training activities.
Patrol officers up to the rank of corporal who live in the city may participate in the program, McMahon says. Only marked patrol cars are used, and the officer must park the car where it will be visible. Seniority is not a factor in deciding which officers may take their cars home, McMahon says, and there is a six- or seven-person waiting list for the program at all times.
According to McMahon, the department tries to assign the take-home cars to officers who live in areas where crime is a problem and to prevent large numbers of cars in the same neighborhood or apartment complex.
Officers in the program are responsible for the upkeep of their cars in such areas as appearance, but are not allowed to do any mechanical work on them.
The idea of a take-home program is not new. Arlington County has had such a program since 1971 and currently has 100 vehicles in their take-home car program. Fairfax County tried the idea in the mid-70s, but, according to County Executive J. Hamilton Lambert, the county found that the take-home car was not totally cost effective, that Neighborhood Watch overtook it and that the county is too huge and decentralized for it to be effective.
Alexandria first tried the idea in 1981, when it was found that the police department's patrol cars were wearing out at an alarming rate. Up to that time, the department had kept all its patrol cars in a pool.
In use 24 hours a day, the cars were wearing out in 12 to 18 months. The city could get little for the cars in auction because they often had as many as 60,000 miles on the odometer and overall were in bad shape.
To reduce the rate of attrition, the department decided to end the pool system and assign cars to officers. Some cars would be shared by two officers, and some would be assigned to one. In addition, 10 older cars slated for retirement were kept in service and assigned to officers as the first take-home cars.
Four of those cars are still in use today.
The department found that all of its cars were in better shape as a result of assigning them to officers, and that the take-home cars, despite being the oldest in the fleet, were the best kept of all. Preventive maintenance has increased, and the wear and tear caused by having several drivers in a car all day every day has decreased.
Following the initial evaluation of the program, the department decided in 1982 to increase the number of cars in the program to 17, again using older cars. The number has remained constant since then. The department plans to go to City Council by next May with a request for a further increase in the number of cars in the program.