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As he strolled around Dupont Circle one Saturday night in late August, J. Richard Pinnell was convinced he had witnessed a dereliction of police duty: A police cruiser pulled into an illegal parking spot, and two people—not in uniform—jumped out and bought tickets for a movie. Pinnell promptly called the police department’s community affairs office to report the incident, but the person who took the complaint said the police car in question was likely one of the department’s 94 “take-home cruisers,” which are issued to D.C. cops as part of the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD)’s community policing program.
The program sounded like a colossal waste to Pinnell, who was familiar with sob stories from MPD brass about their threadbare budget, pay cuts, and broken-down cruisers. “My biggest concern was that a police car, equipped and everything, has to cost $30,000,” says Pinnell. “I was reacting to just the additional cars that have to be kept in inventory.” Arguing that take-home cars were a perk the city could ill afford, Pinnell wrote a letter of protest to MPD Chief Larry Soulsby, his councilmember, Harold Brazil, and District media outlets. But complaints from skeptics like Pinnell have gone unheeded, and MPD is speeding ahead with a program to expand the take-home program.
Why authorize take-homes when there aren’t enough cruisers to go around? Deputy MPD Chief Claude Beheler argues that the take-home cars guarantee a constant presence in high-crime neighborhoods, where residents are literally screaming for police protection. Sure, it’s not like having a beat cop walk the streets, but the cars are a reassuring symbol of order and authority to neighborhoods that host the take-homes. Or so says Minnie Green, a community activist who lives on the 4400 block of 3rd Street NW. Green lives a few doors down from a cop who brought his cruiser home every night until he retired about six months ago. “I tell you, baby, you just feel so secure [with a cruiser on the block],” she says. “A friend of mine lives on Decatur Street, and the policeman there would park his cruiser in front of different houses because they asked him to, because it makes them feel so secure.”
Green says she saw a real drop in crime and vagrancy in her neighborhood. Before, she says, kids used to hang out on nearby Upshur Street “acting like hoodlums.” To snuff out the thugs, neighborhood MPD officers would leave their take-homes on Upshur Street and walk home. On those occasions, the loiterers would clear out, she says. And Philip Dickerson, owner of the M&S Market on Upshur, notes, “Kids aren’t hanging around the corner getting into trouble any more.”
But not all of Green’s neighbors are fans of the take-home program. Lawrence Whittaker, who works the neighborhood’s orange-hat patrol of citizen crime-fighters, says the cruisers do little to combat the neighborhood’s No. 1 scourge: violence-prone drug dealers: “The drug dealers up here [apparently] don’t see ’em,” Whittaker says.
Officer J.J. Boyle, who patrols Upshur Street on his daily beat, argues that experienced criminals are no more scared by an empty, idle police cruiser than by a few doofy do-gooders dressed in orange hats. To drive home his point, Boyle cites the department’s infamous “off-duty scooter.” “The department had a decoy scooter program for a while, where they parked a scooter at a 7-Eleven to deter drug dealing,” says Boyle. “After a while, the dealers caught on to the fact that the scooter didn’t really belong to a cop, and it was just sitting there. So instead of leaving it where it was parked, the dealers started moving it so they could sit on it while they used the pay phone to make their deals.”
While the take-home program has its share of skeptics, it’s a smash hit among carless MPD officers. At the moment, there are hundreds of officers on the department’s waiting list to receive take-homes. Consider the perks: Free car, free gas, free insurance, free repairs, and the opportunity to go from 0 to 60 mph faster than you can say “Adam-12.” And if you’re in a hurry to get across town, you can always make like on-duty cops: light ’em up and blow through stop signs and traffic lights with impunity.
The program limped along for about 10 years with just a handful of cruisers available for take-home deployment. But last year, Ward 1 Councilmember Frank Smith took up the cause and got the council to authorize 94 cruisers for the program.
Beheler says that rather than being spendy, the program actually saves the department untold amounts in maintenance costs. When officers patrol in cars they hand off after their shifts are up, they treat the vehicles as if they were rentals, playing chicken with potholes and gunning their engines like Formula One racers. Beheler says there are no words to describe how officers routinely leave the cruisers’ interiors. Just picture a sheen of doughnut jelly on the radio controls, juice and soda bottles clanking around on the passenger-side floor, and pizza crusts in the coin tray. But Beheler says that when the patrol car doubles as a personal vehicle, officers take responsibility for the maintenance of the vehicle.
It’s not as if every Joe Friday in the District gets a crack at municipally subsidized personal transportation—only D.C. residents with above-average performance evaluations can lay claim to the take-home perk. The privilege has its price, too: Officers who get cruisers of their very own are required to attend meetings of their local Advisory Neighborhood Commission and the Citizen Advisory Council. But the real show-stopper is the take-home dress code, which enjoins officers from hopping in their take-homes wearing “casual and/or revealing attire such as bathing suits, flip-flops, halter tops, sandals or clothing with derogatory, obscene, or offensive language or designs.”
D.C.’s not the only department in the area that lets its officers take their cars home. Both Prince George’s and Montgomery Counties have similar programs. (Montgomery, which has by far the most anal-retentive take-home code, does allow its officers to wear sandals, though.) Take-home programs are common across the country, especially in rural areas, where response time tends to be longer. Beheler says the many substations in D.C. make response time a nonissue for the regular street cop but a priority for officers with special duties. “Sometimes we have people report directly from their home to their duty,” he says. “Say an S.O.D. [SWAT] officer gets a call late on a Friday night. He can report directly from home without going to the S.O.D. building, getting his equipment, and so on.”
According to Sgt. Chris Sanders of MPD’s 4th District, MPD is considering a proposal to expand the take-home program by copying an initiative that started in Hawaii. Under the initiative, MPD officers would buy their own cruisers and deduct their lease or loan payments from their tax liability. MPD’s outlay would only pay for the cruiser’s radio and other specialized police equipment. The bottom line for the department, according to Sanders, is that the department could put a $30,000 cruiser on the street for about $5,000.
Although Sanders insists that the initiative is awaiting approval from MPD Chief Larry Soulsby, Robert Garisto, an MPD spokesman, says it has yet to rear its head downtown. “We have never heard of any such program,” says Garisto.
It’s all the same for Pinnell, who remains unconvinced that sprinkling take-homes across the city will do much for the average citizen. “Maybe there’s some real benefit,” Pinnell says, “but I live a block from the substation, and there’s a lot of police cars parked on the street. And our cars still get broken into.”