The e-newsletter of the COPS Office | Volume 1 | Issue 11 | November 2008

COPS Follows Up on the Fuel Costs Challenge

Six months ago, the Community Policing Dispatch published an article about the problem-solving challenge faced by law enforcement in this county caused by the dramatic increases in fuel costs during the last 2 years. The response to the article was overwhelming, and it prompted the COPS Office to begin to delve further into the issue of how the cost of doing business has increased dramatically for law enforcement agencies because of the staggering increases in fuel prices.

It quickly became apparent that the problem of rising energy costs was affecting operations beyond budgeting for more expensive gasoline. As more information on the breadth and depth of the problem became available it was apparent that short-term and long-term plans that can ensure that public safety is not compromised represent a challenge.

During the intervening months, rising energy prices have eased some and even retreated a bit. However, the current economic crisis, coupled with the outlook for the growing worldwide energy needs is likely to have an impact on law enforcement budgets for the foreseeable future.

In early September, the COPS Office hosted three conference calls to discuss the impact of fuel costs on law enforcement. The calls were grouped by type of department: large and midsized cities, small and rural communities, and state police agencies. Fifty agencies across the country, from Goffstown, New Hampshire, to Honolulu, Hawaii, participated in the calls, and with only one or two exceptions, all were feeling the pain at the pump. This was followed at the beginning of October by a focus group of 16 departments (including campus, city, county, state, and federal agencies) in the Washington D.C., region that discussed in more detail many of the ideas raised in the conference calls. Together these events collected a wide range of perspectives from the field, where the cost of a gallon of gasoline may be a little cheaper than it was in May, but the broader economic crisis has placed even greater strains on state and local budgets and thus far there are more questions than answers.

All of the agencies represented were very concerned with ensuring that they maintain the level of service and visibility their communities have come to expect. Yet faced with dramatic budget shortfalls, it was common for us to hear that the immediate measures taken once fuel costs went up were to reduce overtime, cut civilian positions, eliminate discretionary training, and freeze hiring so that vacant sworn positions were not filled. While these actions might be necessary to ensure immediate fiscal solvency, in the long term these choices would affect the level and quality of service and protection that the agencies are accustomed to providing. Everyone was able to agree that this problem is long term and growing and as new budgets are set, agencies need to look beyond what costs can be cut to what costs can be saved.

What the conference calls and focus group quickly revealed, however, was that there would be no single universal solution or set of recommendations. The answers to the energy and economic problems affecting state and local law enforcement will be as diverse as the departments and the communities they serve. For instance, differences in driving patterns and vehicle use influence the types of long-term answers agencies are searching for when it comes to advances in vehicle technology. The small town with 17 vehicles in its fleet is looking for different responses than the midsized state patrol agency with 1,400 vehicles driving more than 40 million highway miles every year. Minimal gains in fuel efficiency that require large budget outlays may not always be cost-effective in small-town agencies, while in the latter case of state police departments, even very small gains in the average mpg of their vehicles can result in large cost savings in the annual fleet budget.

Many of the larger cities are beginning to add hybrid vehicles to their fleets. While they have questions about the vehicles—ranging from the ability of the hybrid batteries to cope with the electrical load of police technology in the cars to the long-term maintenance costs and battery disposal options for hybrids—the prospect of huge improvements in fuel efficiency on low-speed, urban roads seemed to make the cars worth testing. Many of the smaller departments, however, do not think that the potential fuel savings can offset the increased purchase price of the cars—and instead talked more about ways in which they can increase the use of foot patrol, bikes, and Segways (in small towns) and be smarter about deployment patterns (in large rural areas). Hybrids were also not of much interest to state police agencies, which is not surprising because at highway speeds hybrids are running on their combustion engines. There, many of the agencies talked about changing to 6-cylinder cars, reducing wind drag by opting for lower-profile LCD light-bars, using mapping technology in support of directed patrol efforts, to better understand where traffic accidents are likely to occur, and using Internet distance learning, and teleconference technologies to minimize the amount of driving troopers must do for training and administrative duties.

What all the agencies did agree on when it came to vehicles was that improved data collection and tracking of fuel usage and vehicle maintenance records were key to saving fuel. As everyone has learned in recent months, properly maintained vehicles are more fuel efficient, and fleet management systems can also help supervisors identify officers whose driving habits may be having an adverse effect on both the efficiency and life of their vehicles. One agency reported savings in fuel when all it did was monitor fuel usage. The Hawthorne effect—behavior change resulting from being watched—seemed to have had some positive impact.

So far, the COPS Office’s examination has found that the strain of increased energy costs, coupled with reduced budget resources produced by a slowing economy, represents a serious challenge for the law enforcement community to face and continue to provide the current level of police services. Many of the short-term solutions that are being employed around the country could have a negative impact on police services, both qualitatively and quantitatively.

A variety of potential solutions are being explored by state and local law enforcement to more effectively address the economic and energy challenges the field currently faces. Hybrid vehicles, downsizing of vehicles, resource deployment strategies, savings through improved efficiencies, and new technologies are among the measures being employed and/or under consideration. Each of these, as well as other ideas, pose opportunities, questions, and possible unintended consequences. Future issues of the Community Policing Dispatch will be exploring these and other possible measures and their ability to positively address this serious challenge for the law enforcement community.

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