Chilkat Valley News - Serving Haines and Klukwan, Alaska since 1966


Police: Get rid of hybrid patrol cars


The Haines Borough Police Department is looking to replace two hybrid electric patrol vehicles purchased four years ago, due to concerns about their safety, practicality, and fuel economy.

Interim police chief Simon Ford told the assembly during an April 23 budget meeting that the department’s two hybrid Ford Escape SUVs, purchased for $45,000 apiece in 2009, are too cramped to properly fit larger prisoners and ill-equipped to protect officers.

Equipment installed in the vehicles taxes the electrical systems so heavily that cost savings typically achieved by the gas/electric hybrid system are eliminated, Ford said.

“The gas engine is actually running more often than it isn’t... We’ve taken a really good idea and expected to recapture a lot of money, but it’s not really working,” Ford said.

Former police chief Gary Lowe spearheaded purchase of the hybrids under the premise they would save a substantial amount of money (about $8,000 to $10,000 a year) and reduce the borough’s carbon footprint.

The vehicles are advertised as getting 32 to 34 miles per gallon, but are currently averaging about 20 mpg in the summer and 13 mpg in the winter, Ford said.

“When we drove the vehicles from Anchorage to Haines they got 34 mpg. But what we’ve done is we’ve loaded a lot of electronic devices and accessories onto this hybrid electric car,” including lights, sirens, radars, dash cameras, radios, and laptop terminals, “that are sucking electricity out of what’s supposed to be an electric car.”

The back seats are also too small to fit larger prisoners, Ford said. “I have arrested some large men and have had to seat them sideways in the back seat because they don’t physically fit in the traditional way,” he said.

According to minutes from the June 23, 2009, assembly meeting, then-assembly member Doug Olerud said he didn’t believe the hybrids would be big enough to house equipment and transport prisoners. Olerud moved the borough purchase one hybrid first to see if it performed adequately, but the motion failed.

Assembly member Norm Smith also expressed concern about the inadequacy of the hybrids’ small interiors back in 2009.

Mayor Stephanie Scott said she recently went on a ride-along with Ford, when she noticed the absence of a barrier between the front and back seats. “I was shown how the officer is completely unprotected from the person they have put in the car and how inadequate those vehicles are for the purpose to which they have been designed,” Scott said.

If prisoners escape their handcuffs, access to the officer and materials stored in the vehicle is basically unrestricted, Ford said.

Ford also pointed out that while the borough originally bought the hybrids in the name of environmental consciousness, hybrid batteries are highly toxic and unable to be disposed of in an environmentally-friendly way. “In essence, it may be that we are trading one environmental problem for another.”

Scott said she supported replacing the hybrid cars.

“I think those cars are inadequate for the purpose to which they hoped to be used and place our officers in harm’s way, and I think we need to replace them,” Scott said.

Assembly member Steve Vick said he also supports remedying the problems voiced by Ford. (Vick also supported purchase of the hybrids in 2009).

“The idea that they can access an officer that easily... I think we are silly not to go ahead and make sure that we do everything we can to have units that can protect our police,” Vick said.

When asked why the borough opted for the hybrids in the first place, Scott said she thought officials were excited about the prospect of saving money on gas and might have overlooked potential drawbacks.

“I guess everybody gave it a shot. I wasn’t there in 2009. I know that everybody felt happy that we could maybe reduce our gas mileage. I think they had their eye on that and didn’t really think about the problems, or were reluctant to say,” Scott said.

Scott also alluded to the recent change in department leadership as a reason for the push for new vehicles.

An assembly member would have to introduce an amendment to manager Mark Earnest’s proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year to include money for the desired vehicles. The assembly would then have to pass the amendment and the budget as a whole.

The Ford Interceptor SUV, which is specifically designed for police use, is the preferred replacement of choice, Ford said. Officer Adam Patterson researched the vehicle and contacted a salesperson at Kendall Ford, who quoted the fully-loaded Interceptor at $30,000 each, complete with police department discount.

Patterson said the borough could trade in the two hybrids for a total of $20,000 to $24,000 and use that money against the purchase of two Interceptors, leaving the net cost for the two new vehicles at $36,000 to $40,000.  

The Interceptor has a built-in separation shield between the front and back seats, secure weapon mounts, and a spacious back seat, Ford said. It also includes an oversized alternator to run electronic accessories and features “beefed up” engines, brakes, airbags, and steering components, he added.

Between Jan. 1, 2012, and Dec. 31, 2012, the department’s Ford 500 sedan averaged nearly 15 mpg, the 2004 Dodge Durango averaged 13 mpg, and the new pick-up truck averaged about 10.5 mpg this winter.

The Interceptor is advertised as getting 18 mpg in the city and 23 on the highway.