Use of personal cars saves police time and money
By Johnny Brannon
Advertiser Staff Writer
The Honolulu and Big Island police departments spend millions of dollars each year to subsidize vehicles owned by officers who use them on the job, but officials say the unique arrangement saves money and works to everyone's advantage.
"It just avoids a whole gamut of problems with availability and response times, and it's much more cost-effective," said Hawai'i Police Department Assistant Chief Lawrence Mahuna. "We find that vehicles last longer when they're personally owned."
Officers can immediately swing into action from home in the event of an islandwide emergency, and they can monitor police radios in the vehicles while driving off-duty, which allows them to back up other officers in danger, Mahuna said.
The two departments pay a stipend of up to $488 per month to officers who use their own vehicles, which are unmarked except for distinctive blue emergency lights mounted on the roof.
The departments pay to outfit the vehicles with the lights and police radios and sirens, as well as for gas and liability and property damage insurance. Officers pay their own comprehensive and collision insurance, and vehicle maintenance.
Hawai'i County spends about $2 million per year to subsidize about 400 vehicles, Mahuna said. The Honolulu Police Department spends about $7.1 million each year on 1,320 or so vehicles, according to Maj. Susan Ballard, who heads the department's finance division.
Honolulu Assistant Chief Karl Godsey said the city began using private vehicles for police work in 1932 to economically modernize operations and increase self-reliance. Unlike Mainland jurisdictions, there were no neighboring police forces to assist in emergencies, so having officers use their own cars helped HPD stay prepared, he said.
"The island makes it very unique," Godsey said. "We can call people directly into work if there's an emergency."
HPD at one time allowed officers to use only American-made cars on the job, but now a wide variety of foreign and domestic cars, and even sport utility vehicles, are acceptable. They can be painted any color, but cannot have racing stripes, custom rims or souped-up engines, Godsey said.
Black is probably the most popular color, and the vehicles are frequently inspected to ensure they are safe, insured and properly registered, he said.
Critics say the system could create problems because it is not always clear that a private vehicle with no police insignia on its doors is legitimate.
"Because we have officers driving around in all types of vehicles, you can never really be sure if it's really a police car," said Brent White, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawai'i. "Anyone can put a blue light on top of their car and go pull someone over."
Though it is against state law for non-police vehicles to display any type of blue light, that will not stop a committed criminal from impersonating a police officer to pull someone over, White said.
"I have several female friends who have told me they would never pull over for an unmarked car, and it's a legitimate concern," he said. "It puts the driver in a Catch-22. If they don't pull over they could be arrested and charged with evading police. If they do pull over, they may find themselves shot."
Instead of banning blue lights, police should simply use marked vehicles, he said.
Godsey said officers must be in full uniform, in addition to having a blue light affixed to the top of their car, in order to pull a motorist over.
He and White both said they were not aware of any other jurisdiction in which privately owned vehicles are routinely used by police officers on a wide scale.
The San Francisco Police Department has never considered such an arrangement, and officers there cannot conduct non-emergency traffic stops in unmarked police cars because of legal concerns, SFPD Inspector Sherman Ackerson said.
Go with what works
Criminal suspects have successfully argued in court that they did not know or did not believe that an unmarked car was a police car, even though it was equipped with emergency lights and siren, he said. So the department now allows officers to make traffic stops only when they are in full uniform in a marked police vehicle, unless a serious crime has been committed.
But Ackerson said San Francisco's hills and harsh city streets take a toll on squad cars, and that officers would probably treat vehicles much better if they owned them.
"It's an interesting idea and if it works in Hawai'i that's great," he said. "Our cars are like cabs they're used 24 hours a day, and in a couple of years they're just toast. I wouldn't buy a used SFPD patrol car, put it that way."
Both the Honolulu and Hawai'i police departments also use conventional patrol cars, painted white and blue and marked with insignia. But it would cost more to provide patrol cars for all officers than to subsidize the private vehicles, because the departments would also have to build new maintenance and storage facilities and hire mechanics, officials say.
New police cars typically cost between $20,000 and $30,000 and last from three to five years. The top cost of subsidizing a private car under the current arrangement is $5,856 per year, which equals $17,568 for three years and $29,280 for five, not including maintenance costs.
Officers on Maui and Kaua'i, which have smaller police departments, use conventional patrol cars almost exclusively, but Kaua'i recently began assigning cars to individual officers and allowing them to drive the vehicles home after work.
That has increased police visibility in neighborhoods and encouraged officers to take good care of the cars, Kaua'i Deputy Chief Wilfred Ihu said.
"The community really likes to see a police vehicle in their neighborhood, and it's worked really well for us," he said.
Reach Johnny Brannon at firstname.lastname@example.org or 525-8070.