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Cut costs of Iowa City Police car-idling

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | FEBRUARY 14, 2012 6:30 AM

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When bar-hopping or window-shopping in downtown Iowa City, strolling by an idling police cruiser on an evening is a common occurrence. What seems to be even stranger is that, for the most part, the cruisers are many times empty.

The sight is enough to drive a tree-hugger mad — what's more, the reality is that this isn't an Iowa City thing. It's a world thing. From Clinton and Burlington to Hollywood and Vine, police cars sit idling while patrolling officers make their rounds.

As environmental and economic efficiency are steadily pushed to the forefront of the American agenda, local police departments — especially the Iowa City police and the University of Iowa police — should explore more eco-friendly and cost-efficient alternatives to keeping cruisers running when they are not being driven.

Reducing police-car idling has potential to yield significant fiscal and environmental benefits. In just two minutes, an idling car burns enough gas to drive a mile — and to emit one pound of carbon dioxide. According to an article from Toronto's the Globe and Mail, urban police cars idle approximately 85 percent of the time that they are running — and these cars are not known for their fuel efficiency. Most police cruisers get around 15 miles per gallon in the city and about 25 miles per gallon on the highway. The efficiency of all-wheel-drive SUVs is notably less, and as taxpayers, we get stuck with the bill.

So why do police officers continue to run their inefficient engines at the taxpayers' expense? Especially in the winter months, it's easy for one to assume officers are simply trying to keep warm. In such a case, it would be much easier to write a scathing attack — yet, in actuality, the rationality is more reasonable.

Police cruisers and interceptors are no different from any normal car when it comes to basic operational functions. During the winter months, windows fog over and freeze quickly, especially during periods of snowfall. In the case of an emergency, vehicles need to be ready for dispatch at a moment's notice.

In the case of K9 units (the UI police have two), the primary concern is the comfort and health of the dogs, which spend the majority of their time in the car(s) while on patrol.

The most pertinent rationale for idling cruisers concerns technology. Just as our car stereos can't function all day on battery alone, neither can a police cruiser's computer system, light and siren system, GPS, or radio.

"There are so many computers and equipment in the cars that if a battery runs down, it's much like pulling a plug on a computer," said Iowa City Police Chief Sam Hargadine. "We would have to reboot everything."

For law-enforcement officers, time to reboot and recharge might mean a lapse in response time.

"My expectation is that this is all done in a reasonable manner," Hargadine said. "But it is ultimately up to individual officer discretion."

While many instances of police-car idling are valid, an eco-aware city such as Iowa City should expect more eco-bang for its buck. Luckily, a power-management system that allows cruisers to utilize full electronic capability without running the engine has been developed in recent years — and it could save the city more than $100,000 per year if implemented.

The cost- and fuel-efficient alternative, developed and commercialized by Energy Xtreme, in Austin, Texas, is designed to run an officer's entire electrical system for up to four hours after the engine has stopped.

The system was tested by the Dallas police in 2009 with great success, and it could save local police departments more than $3,000 per year per vehicle in gas costs.

For the time being, excessive idling continues to have a negative impact on local air quality, and it is economically inefficient. And despite the sound reason behind the current justification for idling cruisers, there's still no system of systematic accountability when determining whether a given officer at any given time is just keeping his car warm or consciously acting upon good intentions for the greater safety of the community.

Mobile electronic power might be a thing of the future, but as an academic community of progressive thinkers and doers, the university, Iowa City community, and the police forces should look into healthier and less wasteful methods of keeping their computer systems up and running. Taxpayers and students alike should be putting more pressure on the UI and the Iowa City police to consider greener, less costly alternatives to idling.


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