Big, V-8 police cruisers of film and television lore are being replaced in Douglas County.
The American motoring public began turning to smaller, front-wheel-drive vehicles years ago. Now local police agencies are catching up. And for the same reason: Economy.
"It gets 20 miles per gallon that's pretty good for police cars," said Lt. Don Crowe of the Douglas County Sheriff's Office's new Chevrolet Impalas. Crowe is the department's patrol supervisor.
The department broke a long-standing U.S. law enforcement tradition this year when it chose the six-cylinder, front-wheel-drive Chevy.
"They've worked pretty well," Crowe said. "We've not had any major problems with them."
This year sheriff's road patrol deputies began driving eight 2001 Impalas. The cars replaced bigger rear-wheel drive Ford Crown Victorias. The sheriff's fleet includes 30 vehicles: Impalas, Crown Vics and some SUVs and pickups.
The Impalas became an option after Chevrolet ended its production hiatus on "police package" automobiles.
In recent years Crown Victorias have been virtually the only cars with a true police cruiser package available for law enforcement agencies. That changed with the Impala.
Increasing price competition was one of the reasons the sheriff's department asked for patrol car bids from both Ford and Chevrolet last year, Crowe said. A low bid for the Impala came in at $19,407, nearly $2,000 less than a low bid for a new Crown Victoria, sheriff's records show.
The Impala's engine is much smaller than the Crown Victoria's. But test results on both cars by the Michigan State Police showed little difference in speed.
That recent study found the Crown Victoria's top speed to be 129 miles per hour, while the Impala's top is 124 mph. The Crown Victoria can go from 0 to 50 mph in 6.39 seconds, while the Impala was timed at 6.67 seconds.
In the past, police worried front-wheel drive patrol cars would lack sturdiness and handling. Front-wheel drive didn't seem able to stand up mechanically to continuous, rugged police driving. Front-wheel drive cars tend to fish-tail coming out of a curve at high speed unless the driver knows how to deal with it.
There are other intricacies to the front-wheel drive. That's why earlier this year sheriff's officers went through a two-day seminar at Johnson County New Century Airport to learn to drive the Impalas.
Training came from Lawrence Police Officer Randy Glidewell, an emergency vehicle operations trainer. Deputies learned how the Impala handles while doing various police road course maneuvers on unused runways.
Glidewell said he was generally impressed with the Impala. But there are problems, he said. The brakes overheat quicker than those on the bigger cars. The transmission also gets hot when doing a series of rapid forward-reverse maneuvers, which police cars are sometimes required to do.
"These are problems Chevrolet is aware of, and they are working to correct them," Glidewell said.
The interior of the Impala isn't as roomy as the Crown Victoria and some big officers may find it uncomfortable, Glidewell said.
Other agencies consider downsizing
The sheriff's department isn't the only area law enforcement agency that has considered the Impala. Last month an Impala was purchased by the Baldwin Police Department. Initially, Chief Steve Butell was to drive it to see if it met the department's needs.
But Mayor Ken Hayes said the council was unaware of the safety differences involved with the two types of patrol cars or that additional training would be required for officers. The council wanted to put the car into patrol use, but for now the car has been parked until training costs and other matters can be worked out.
Baldwin found its bids to be only $300 lower for the Impala than the Crown Victoria, Hayes said.
In the early 1990s, the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department bought several front-wheel drive Ford Tauruses for patrol duty. It has not bought anymore, Undersheriff Jeff Herrig said. Officers weren't unhappy with the Taurus; they just preferred the bigger car, and the department also has used trucks for patrol in recent years.
Lawrence Police have two front-wheel drive Chevrolet Luminas used by school resource officers, but they are not outfitted for regular patrol duty, Lt. Kevin Harmon said.
Police prefer the Crown Victoria for its size, said Harmon, who handles the purchasing of patrol cars. There are no plans now to consider the Impala, he said.
"When you use that car for your office for eight hours a day and have all your equipment in there, you need to have some room," Harmon said.