DEKALB, IL — When police officers talk about new and improved vehicles, that generally translates to larger and faster. At Northern Illinois University (NIU), however, that trend is making a U-turn. The NIU Department of Public Safety announced its latest new squad vehicle is a Toyota, the gas/electric hybrid Prius that uses a small gasoline engine in conjunction with an electric motor to provide power while keeping emissions and fuel consumption to a minimum. The NIU is believed to be the first police department in the nation to adopt a hybrid car for full service patrol use. Now in its second generation, the Prius is larger and more powerful and fuel efficient than the earlier model. The NIU transportation motor pool currently uses six Prius (both the first and second generation vehicles), and all have received excellent reviews. There have been no out-of-the-ordinary maintenance issues, and plans are in the works to add more of the vehicles to the fleet. According to NIU Police Chief Don Grady, the Prius (outfitted with radio equipment, light bars, and other police essentials) is more than enough car to patrol the 1.2-square mile NIU campus where more than 25,000 students study. “It is simply a matter of having the right tool for the job. It may not be the ideal car for every police application, but it’s an excellent fit for the university,” Grady says. “It just makes good sense. On a campus this size we don’t need big vehicles that are expensive to operate, cumbersome, and environmentally unfriendly.” The Prius, on the other hand, sips gasoline, runs almost silently, and is rated as a Super Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle. The car also costs several thousand dollars less than the vehicles it will replace. Of all those attributes, gas mileage may be the greatest benefit. The mid-sized Prius, EPA-rated at 60 mpg in the city and 55 mpg overall (it gets its best mileage in city driving where the electric motor carries much of the load), will use about 80 percent less fuel than the Ford Crown Victorias currently operated by the department. The switch will result in a savings of thousands of dollars a year if, as planned, the department’s entire fleet of squad cars is converted to the Prius. The Prius also fits well with the department’s commitment to community policing. Two years ago the department dramatically reduced the amount of time officers spent in vehicles of any kind, setting up community safety centers in the university residence halls and assigning officers to patrol those facilities around the clock. The department also increased bike and foot patrols in other campus areas. Today, even officers assigned to vehicle patrol spend only four to six hours of a 12-hour shift behind the wheel. The result of getting officers out of cars and in closer contact with students, faculty, and staff has been dramatic. A 59.32 percent drop in crimes of all sorts was achieved during the first year, and the relationship between the students and the police was transformed, from one of confrontation to collaboration. “Police officers have to get out among the people walking, talking, and getting to know each other. We’re always looking for ways to interact with the community more closely. You simply can’t do that if you spend your day behind the wheel of a car,” Grady says. Consequently, the role of the squad car has changed from being a “rolling office” for NIU police officers into a means of conveyance. For the times when officers must transport a prisoner, the Prius is outfitted with a half-cage on the passenger side of the rear seat. Grady, who prefers that style in any car since it is more difficult for prisoners to kick out doors or windows. The Prius posts a respectable 0-60 mph time of about 10 seconds, and can easily cruise at speeds substantially greater than the law allows — performance factors it will rarely, if ever, be asked to produce. “In this environment, the superior handling of the Prius (34-foot turning radius) is undoubtedly more useful than pure acceleration,” Grady says. “On an emergency vehicle operations course, you rarely get a car over 50 mph. I’d wager the Prius would out-perform most police vehicles on such a course.” Grady expects the community will whole-heartedly approve of the switch to the more economical, environmentally friendly vehicles. “The only thing radically different in the Prius is the drive train, and that won’t be novel for long. Hybrids are coming. It’s no longer a mater of if, but simply when. The question for other agencies is, ‘Do you want to be out in front of the curve, or pulled into the 21st Century?’ ”