Two years ago, when they started up their patrol cars each morning, officers of the Northern Illinois University (NIU) Department of Public Safety pioneered one of the first police forces in the nation to begin experimenting with hybrid Toyota Prius vehicles as patrol cars. Today, hybrids are no longer a novelty, and the experiment is long over. The Prius has become the department’s vehicle of choice, compromising 80 percent of its fleet with the remaining units replaced with hybrids as budgets allow.

From the very start, these cars have done everything we have asked of them, everything we have needed. They have proven themselves the perfect tool for the job,” says NIU Police Chief Don Grady, who leads a 45-person force charged with patrolling what is essentially a small city of about 30,000 people spread over 1.2 miles.

Officers use the cars for all routine patrol, traffic control, prisoner transport, and emergency response, just as their counterparts do in cities, suburbs, and small towns across the country. The vehicles are on the road seven days a week, averaging a little more than 1,300 miles a month, and have so far required only the same routine maintenance as the traditional vehicles they replaced. The university’s general motor pool also includes 12 Prius hybrids, which have similar maintenance histories.

Saving the University Fuel Dollars
High on the list of attributes that attracted the department to hybrids was the possibility of saving money on gasoline, something that has become increasingly important, as gas prices today are more than 60-percent higher than in 2004, when the department began adding the Prius to its fleet. The compact cars operate alternately on an electric motor or a gasoline engine, depending upon power requirements and the need to charge the battery, which is done automatically by the gasoline engine.

Where the department’s previous fleet vehicles averaged less than 10 mpg, the Prius sips gasoline at a rate of approximately 44 mpg.

Power and Performance
Improved gas mileage would not have been enough to make the Prius the department’s vehicle of choice, says Grady. It also had to meet all the functional needs of its larger counterpart. The car has done so and, in fact, officers report that in some ways it is superior to the larger vehicle it replaced.

“Its compact nature allows us to access areas we couldn’t get to in a big squad car,” says Officer Jeanne Meyer who, prior to joining the NIU force, served as a federal agent and in the military where she drove traditional police cruisers. “It’s wonderfully suited to the campus, and I think it would work out just as well in any urban environment where you are mostly traveling short distances — which is typical of most of modern policing,” she says.

Maneuverability a Plus
The car’s maneuverability also is demonstrated repeatedly when officers take it to the Suburban Law Enforcement Academy for driver training. It typically performs in the upper ranks of all vehicles on the test course. The department has also found that, over short distances, the Prius acceleration matches that of the vehicles it replaced.

“For departments like ours, we don’t need power as much as we need maneuverability,” says Officer Alan Smith. “We can get wherever we want just as fast with the Prius as with our previous patrol car.”

Other Concerns Dispelled
Day-in and day-out use also has dispelled other concerns with the Prius. For instance, while its exterior dimensions are much smaller than the department’s previous patrol unit model, the interior of the Prius is similarly roomy.

Officers on the police force (including Grady, who stands 6 foot, 7 inches) report no difficulty entering or leaving the vehicle even when wearing body armor and utility belts.

The cars are also easy to convert to police service, says Officer Mark Roccaforte, who serves as the department’s quartermaster. All police package equipment installed in the vehicles — lights, sirens, half cage for prisoners, radios, video cameras, etc. — is the same equipment installed in the department’s previous patrol vehicles. The only alteration required was removing the middle front seat console to install a flashlight charger and cup holder.

Roccaforte has become an unabashed Prius endorser. He has fielded calls from police departments across the nation and happily provides glowing reports.

A Higher Standard of Vehicle
“The chief gave me an opportunity to make a case for staying with our previous patrol car, but I couldn’t come up with a single legitimate concern,” says Roccaforte, who recently got the opportunity to showcase a hybrid patrol car in front of congressmen who sit on the Committee on Science for the House of Representatives.

While several other departments across the nation have tried the Prius or other hybrids for themselves, the hybrid’s use in police fleets remains very much in the minority.However, as the car continues to prove itself and gas prices fluctuate, NIU police officers notice a different tone in the questions they receive from other officers and the public.

“I think as people see more and more hybrid cars on the road they become more used to them in general,” says Smith. “They are still a conversation starter, but we aren’t getting teased as much as before.”

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