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A royal pain

Replacing the defunct Crown Vic an arduous task for police

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MINNEAPOLIS -- Among the many things Dan Starry learned to do before becoming a law enforcement officer 18 years ago was how to handle a patrol car -- the venerable, reliable Ford Crown Victoria.

The low-profile, no-nonsense Crown Vic, the sight of which has made motorists straighten up and drive attentively for more than three decades, has long been an iconic part of police department arsenals.

Earlier this month, however, the last Crown Victoria rolled off the Ford Motor Co. assembly line near St. Thomas, Ont., and they will gradually begin disappearing from the roadways.

"I think for cops on the street, the No. 1 question is: 'What are you going to replace it with?' " said Starry, who is now chief deputy with the Washington County Sheriff's Department. "Will the new cars be as dependable? Will they handle as well? Will they be front-wheel drive versus rear-wheel drive? Will the equipment transfer?"

Last revived by Ford in 1980, consumers haven't been able to buy a Crown Vic new since 2008. But sales to police departments have remained strong; Crown Vics hold 70 per cent of the patrol-car market. Last year, for example, 33,725 Crown Vics were sold in the U.S. for use as squad cars, taxis and other fleet vehicles.

More than the passing of a vehicle with an aura all its own, the transition could be costly for governments at a time of strained budgets. Police officers also will face the challenge of becoming familiar with a new vehicle while still working with the old.

For officers, patrol cars are more than a means of transportation, Starry said. They are both a tool and an office in which an officer spends nine hours a day.

The extra-powerful 200-amp alternator on the Crown Vic operates a computer, radar system, video-recording system and radar units. Equipment includes rifle locks, light bars and sirens, roll cage and partition separating front and rear seats, which are hard plastic to prevent prisoners from hiding items and for easy cleaning.

As U.S. and Canadian enforcement agencies begin budgeting for next year and retiring their Crown Vics, they are faced with more than the typical car shopping.

A Crown Vic costs about US$22,000 to $25,000 before equipment and graphics are added, which can bring the price to near US$40,000. Along with extra training, another concern is whether the equipment that departments have on hand will be compatible with the new cars or whether all-new gear will have to be purchased.

"It's kind of hard to know how to plan ahead," said Craig Woolery, public safety director in Cottage Grove, Minn., which typically replaces four of its 16-car fleet each year.

Sgt. Jim Ramstad, who's in charge of the squad cars for the St. Paul (Minn.) Police Department, faces a similar problem, but on a larger scale. St. Paul replaces about 10 per cent of its 303-vehicle fleet each year.

Like Starry and Woolery, Ramstad's agency is looking primarily at three options: a new police interceptor from Ford based on its newly revamped Taurus, or either the Chevrolet Caprice or Dodge Charger, both of which have made inroads on the squad-car market.

"I've got to know probably by the first week of January which way we're going," Ramstad said. A committee that includes himself, the fleet mechanic and the department's driving instructors is looking at options. "We're still looking at all of them."

The State Patrol is also looking at how it will replace its 600 or so Crown Vics, its primary vehicle for many years, said Lt. Eric Roeske.

There are many factors to consider.

In St. Paul, two-person patrol teams are the norm. The Taurus can hold two, but has front-wheel drive. 'That changes the methods of training we use, because we've always used a rear-wheel drive car," Ramstad said.

The Caprice is rear-wheel drive, but has a smaller interior and a center shifter that means it won't accommodate two officers.

Plus, Ramstad said, it will take several years for the city to replace its front-line squad car. That means officers will be working a car with which they have been familiar for years, plus the new generation of vehicles as they're phased in.

The Crown Vic has been a workhorse for police and a great seller for Ford, said Octavio Navarro, a company spokesman, "but it's kind of become long in the tooth in terms of technology."

Ford's new Police Interceptor is built specifically for police departments. A sport-utility vehicle based on the Explorer is also being added to the Ford line, giving police two options.

The front-wheel drive is an advantage in snowy climates, and upgrades comply with more stringent standards for emissions and gas mileage, Navarro said.

"It's kind of like buying an old house," Navarro said. "Sometimes it's better to tear it down and start over instead of always trying to fix everything that goes wrong with it."

-- Minneapolis Star Tribune

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 16, 2011 E4

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