No industry is exempt from the effects of the U.S. labor shortage. There are a growing number of law enforcement agencies implementing take-home vehicle programs as a recruitment tool. But these programs aren’t just helpful for the new officers they can bring in.
Starting a take-home vehicle program can be costly up-front, but departments should consider the return on investment they will see over time. Government Fleet spoke with two fleet professionals about these benefits.
Using Take-Home Vehicles for Officer Recruitment
While using take-home vehicle programs to attract new officers isn’t the only benefit to law enforcement agencies, it is still a major one that should be considered, especially in a day and age where new recruits are few and far between.
The Police Executive Research Forum conducted a survey in 2022 to gather data on law enforcement staffing numbers, comparing it to responses from the previous three years. Data revealed that hiring appeared to be picking back up in 2022. Still, responding agencies reported nearly 50% more resignations last year than in 2019.
Additionally, retirements came down a bit in 2022, but agencies still reported nearly 20% more retirements than in 2019. As a result, total sworn staffing has dropped nearly 5% over the past three years.
It’s hard to measure the reasons for this, but there are some factors many have pointed to this, including a changing view of law enforcement officers after several major events over the last few years.
Thus, agencies are doing what they can to attract new officers.
Using take-home vehicles to attract new officers and retain existing ones is nothing new; search “take-home vehicles” on our site and you’ll find countless examples of agencies adopting take-home fleets for the same reason over several years.
But departments with these programs have seen benefits, especially those looking to recruit officers.
Potential officers are also likely to consider the benefits offered by nearby agencies; they might be more inclined to go to a neighboring department if it offers take-home vehicles.
Take-home vehicles can also be used as a tool for retention. In 2017, Government Fleet reported that officers for the Wilmington, North Carolina, Police Department were not eligible for take-home vehicles until after two years on the job. Incentivizing take-home vehicles through tenure can help agencies save money, since they won’t need to have vehicles for every officer.
Lowering Maintenance Costs
One of the biggest benefits departments reap with take-home vehicle programs is a large maintenance cost savings. This is something Sgt. Tom Gorman of Connecticut State Police has noticed within his agency’s fleet.
“Giving [troopers] a vehicle to utilize that they can take personal ownership in is huge,” Gorman explained. “For the most part, the cars are cleaner, the electronics in the cars are maintained properly, we have less functionality problems, and we have a higher reporting of problems when there any so getting them fixed happens as a priority.”
Agencies that have implemented take-home vehicle programs have reported cost savings due to this sense of ownership.
A 2010 study of the Cape Coral, Florida, Police Department vehicle policy found that the agency’s take-home program was cheaper than switching to a pooled vehicle system. Government Fleet reported on the study, which was conducted by the Southwest Florida Center for Public and Social Policy at Florida Gulf Coast University. The study compared the current program to a pure pool vehicle program (PVP) where all personnel would share vehicles, and a modified PVP, where some personnel would have assigned vehicles and others would not.
Based on the factors considered in all three scenarios — which included maintenance and repair, parking, lost officer productivity, and vehicle replacements — the agency determined that its current take-home vehicle program was the most cost-effective in the short (one-year), near (three-year), and long (seven-year) terms.
As noted by a Pima County, Arizona report, a 2007 study by the City of St. Petersburg, Florida, found the cost per mile to operate patrol cars in a pool program was $0.49 compared to a cost of $0.40 per mile for assigned vehicles. This savings amounted to $7,650 per vehicle over the course of its life expectancy.
The savings are especially prevalent when comparing take-home vehicles to “hot cars,” which are essentially used 24/7, from one shift to the next. Fleets with “hot cars” don’t typically have time penciled in to perform preventive maintenance.
“Hot cars” can also slow down an officer’s start to their shift; oncoming officers are required to wait for the on-duty officer to complete their shift and remove their personal equipment.
Be Prepared for Higher Up-Front Costs
“You're now buying triple the equipment,” Gorman said. “So it's not just the car. I'm buying three roof racks, I'm buying three sirens, I'm buying three radios, so there’s always that.”
Every trooper with the Connecticut State Police Department has a take-home vehicle because of the nature of the job. Troopers generally need a larger amount of equipment, and they need a place to store it. There is not enough room to store equipment for 50 to 75 troopers at barracks.
Even with the sticker shock of the initial program startup costs, they are far outweighed by the savings from increased vehicle maintenance and officer productivity.
Public Perception and Accessibility in Emergencies
Take-home vehicle programs can lead the community they’re in feel safer due to the perception of a larger law enforcement presence.
After a gunman entered a Texas church in late 2019, a number of agencies allowed officers to take their patrol vehicles to church to show an increased presence. This included the Lauderdale and Walker County Sheriff’s Offices in Alabama.
Troopers with Connecticut State Police are allowed to use their patrol vehicles, which are all unmarked, off-duty. This can sometimes lead to a quicker response to an emergency.
“They are instantly available as soon as they pick up that radio and sign on. If you have an incident going on in your town or your county, you have another resource at your hands [immediately],” Gorman said.
Troopers must have their radios on, even when off the clock, when using their vehicles. This can help when a natural disaster or tragedy strikes.
In December 2012, when a 20-year-old gunman entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, this proved crucial.
“You had people that just showed up that were in their cars that otherwise wouldn't have known about a call like that unless they got a phone call about it. They’re in their cars, they hear the radio traffic, and they respond. And they’re some of the first people into the building in a situation like that. So in that case, it's invaluable,” Gorman said.
Despite these factors, the public may see an increase in vehicle purchases in a negative light.
“They may say things like, ‘Oh, great. Now we're giving them all cars.’ And they're not seeing the upside to retention, recruitment, and everything else that goes along with that,” Gorman said.
But overall, the perception of an increase in law enforcement vehicles on the road tends to be positive.
If you do implement a take-home program, there still may be some officers or troopers who are uncomfortable parking their vehicles at their homes due to safety concerns. In these cases, it’s best to be flexible and allow the officers to park at their department and drive to and from work each day.
How to Bring Stakeholders On Board
As public sector fleet managers know, large financial decisions aren’t generally solely up to them. Fleet managers or their customers are tasked with taking their financial requests to their stakeholders.
Jen Brown, fleet services supervisor for Coconino County, Arizona, Public Works recommends agencies do their research ahead of time to justify why they’re looking to roll out a take-home vehicle program. She recommends ensuring the program remains financially sustainable by periodically reviewing maintenance and fuel expenses. When looking into changing a take-home program, it is important to create or adjust a Take-Home Policy. She also suggests they go into detail about some of the things already mentioned here: recruitment, lower maintenance costs, easier access to emergency response, public perception of officer presence, and more.
What to Avoid With Take-Home Vehicles
When implementing a new take-home vehicle program — or evaluating an existing one — it’s important to ensure there are set rules in place about when the vehicle can and cannot be used.
Wearing a vehicle down with off-duty use can result in aging the vehicle more quickly.
If you are going to allow off-duty use, make sure you have guidelines about what is and is not okay.
Some things to consider:
- Will officers be allowed to drive their vehicles out of the jurisdiction off-duty?
- Can officers respond to emergencies off-duty?
- Can officers transport anyone in their patrol vehicle while off-duty? If so, who?
- Are there places officers should not take their off-duty vehicles?
Another thing to consider is whether officers who live outside the jurisdiction will be allowed to take their vehicles home. If they live far away, the extra miles to get to and from work can add up quickly.
When overseeing a take-home vehicle program, fleet managers must also stay organized, ensuring the rules are being followed. This can be achieved by tracking mileage, by using telematics devices to track where vehicles have driven and when they were driven as well as driver behavior on and off the clock, and by tracking PM schedules to ensure officers are bringing their vehicles in regularly to be serviced.
A poorly managed take-home program can result in the program being dissolved entirely, or scrutiny from local leadership. In 2018, the take-home program for the city of Anchorage, Alaska was audited.
Government Fleet reported that the audit revealed vehicle usage reports were not submitted by every department, not all employees had approval for take-home vehicles on file, and some did not live within city limits. The department’s guidelines were also not clear on usage policies.
It's important to note that the audit's findings were a reflection of the citywide take-home fleet program, not the police department's take-home program. The police department's take-home program has a clear policy on vehicle usage.
An audit is not always a bad thing, though. A 2016 audit of the Wilmington, North Carolina, Police Department take-home vehicle program commended the agency for the oversight and management of its program. There were some minor recommendations, but the fleet’s management of the program led auditors to suggest the take-home program be expanded to include all fleet vehicles.
What if You Can’t Do a Take-Home Vehicle Program?
Some agencies can’t swing a take-home program due to lack of funding to provide enough vehicles for each officer. The next best thing, Brown said, is an assigned vehicle program. Assigning vehicles can still give officers that sense of personal ownership and accountability that a take-home vehicle can.
In Coconino County, deputies with the sheriff’s office use take-home vehicles due to the large area they cover — 18,661 sq. miles. However, the Flagstaff Police Department has an assigned vehicle program which it transitioned to over the last few years.
Prior to creating that program, the vehicles were “hot cars.” This wore them down easily, and made it more difficult to limit the amount of miles placed on newer vehicles, as well as leaving the old ones to sit in the lot.
Additionally, officers were allowed to choose whichever vehicle was available. They often chose newer vehicles, leading to an uneven amount of usage on all vehicles across the fleet.
Now, officers are assigned a vehicle that they use for every shift. Every few months, they put in a request for a vehicle for when the new shift change occurs.
The department works with staff to assign vehicles based on seniority, and the shift the officers are assigned are often based on seniority. The department’s assigned vehicle program has proven beneficial.
“It still holds people accountable,” Brown said. “Before, we didn't really know who checked out [the vehicle]; we wouldn't know who had that car last unless we went through and researched dispatch logs and hoped the officer logged into the correct vehicle. And sometimes folks would get busy or tired from the shift and wouldn’t take any accountability for cleaning the cars at the end of shift or even reporting maintenance repairs. This helps to alleviate it a little bit.”
It’s worth looking into a key management system if you are implementing a pool or assigned vehicle program. The police department uses Keycafe for its key management.
“When [the department] first implemented [the assigned vehicle program], officers were taking the keys and putting them in other officers’ boxes so they could use their vehicle [during the next shift]. And it was eliminating the whole purpose of being able to make sure that we're putting the right number of miles on the vehicles,” Brown said. “Keycafe has helped to eliminate a lot of those issues. You can also see who's checked out the vehicle and who hasn't.”
Being Good Stewards of Taxpayer Dollars
Ultimately, whether you choose a take-home program or assigned vehicle program, you will still likely see cost savings.
Making decisions like these leads you as a law enforcement agency or fleet department to be fiscally responsible and good stewards of taxpayer money.
Editor's Note: This article was edited on Oct. 16 to clarify that the audit of the Anchorage take-home program was for the citywide program, not for the police department's program.