Smaller, Lighter Vehicles Compete For Front-Line Police Work

LAPD Transportation Director outlines performance parameters.

March 1980, Government Fleet - Feature

by Staff

The February meeting of NAFA's Pacific Southwest Chapter Provided some key insights into the problems and procedures of police car selection, with Don Brittingham from the Los Angeles Police Department, the guest speaker. Brittingham , who is Director of Police Transportation for the Department, left no doubt as to what is expected of the 720 black-and-white and 1400 unmarked cars in his fleet.

"A police car is a version of a regular production vehicle that employs engineering design to provide optimum handling, the most important consideration we look for in a car," Brittingham said. "It's not a high-powered bomb, at least not anymore."

Brittingham went on to explain, with the help of a short film, some of the ins-and-outs of what a police car is, and the technique of selection employed by the LAPD. "Starting from the road up, a police car calls for special tires designed to provide maximum traction and maximum durability, for work under high speed operation up to 125 mph." Fabric radials are used most frequently, as the steel radial tire does not work well at high speeds Brittingham explained. The weight of the steel and centrifugal force combine to make the tire come apart. "Of course, we've been having problems getting up to 125 mph. We have problems getting up to 90 mph to test the brakes, nowadays," he added.

This emphasized one of the major themes of the meeting, that the police car of today is but a mere shadow of its former self. It might handle better and ride better, but it still can be outrun by a six-year-old sedan with a large engine and a lead footed driver. To combat this, many departments have gone the specialization route, where certain cars are used only for routine police work and other, quicker, cars are used for high speed pursuit. The California Highway Patrol has recently experimented with Chevy Z-28's, a car lighter and more fuel efficient than the older Dodges, but with good acceleration and top speed.

Problems soon became evident with the CHP program, though for the small interior size of the Z-28 made it extremely difficult to transport prisoners. A backup unit usually had to be called if more than one prisoner had to be moved. Another drawback is the car's low profile and bucket seats which make it difficult for officers to enter and exit.

The car's neutral handling and top speed outweigh this drawback and the CHP felt the car warrants real-world testing in its fleet. Brittingham said speed and especially handling are top priorities when selecting a police vehicle.

"We're looking for a neutral-handling vehicle. This is the only thing that a police car has that will enable it to out-perform other cars. Maybe we couldn't catch them on the free way, but on city streets where there are turns and dips eventually we'll catch up to them.

This is why suspension plays a large role in the police vehicle. Front and rear suspension parts are replaced or beefed up with a special police package, which includes shocks, anti-sway bars, frame reinforcements and so on, "The frame on a police vehicle is either heavier or has many more reinforcements than the standard car, because when you have the stiffer suspension and harder tires, a standard frame wouldn't last very long under the increased stresses." Even the wheels are of a heavy-duty nature, designed to stand up longer under extreme abuse. "A normal wheel would last maybe 15 or 20 laps on our test track before it broke," Brittingham said.

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