Thursday, September 15, 2016

City manager to review LR police car take-home policy

Posted By on Thu, Sep 15, 2016 at 7:29 AM

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Following our report Wednesday on the growth of take-home cars among Little Rock police, with most going to homes outside the city, City Manager Bruce Moore decided to review the issue.

He sent this note to members of the City Board of Directors:

Regarding LRPD's Take Home Car Policy, I have initiated a review with Chief Buckner and the Assistant Chiefs of the assignment of the vehicles. I will submit a report detailing any changes at the conclusion of the review. I anticipate the review taking two-three weeks.

As we reported, some 188 members of the 528-person force are allowed to drive cars home because of duty assignments. In some cases, though by no means all, they are in special units with special equipment. At least 114 of those — and probably 20 more or so of the undercover cops whose hometowns weren't revealed — take these cars homes to cities outside Little Rock, some as far as 55 miles away. Only 46 officers in Little Rock have take-home cars.

UPDATE: The city has updated the list to reflect the undercover cops, virtually all of whom live outside the city. The final list shows 189 take-home cars on the force of more than 520, with only 48 of those living in the city of Little Rock.

Here's the list of all officers with cars and the count on residences.
The cars — though their personal use is limited once they reach homes — amount to free commuting privileges, with gas, oil, tires, maintenance and insurance all covered by the city. The commuting runs up millions of more miles on the city fleet and amounts to a valuable financial subsidy to commuters worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The cost is likely higher than my rough estimate of about $1 million. City Director Ken Richardson noted that his proposal to give take-home privileges to ALL Little Rock-resident cops — only about 160 officers — had been estimated to cost $7.5 million by Manager Moore.

Cops who receive the cars have complained about the review in the Arkansas Blog. We undertook it because it was a little-known sidelight of the recent debate over a city residency requirement for cops, rejected by the City Board. Cops who complain about the cost of housing in Little Rock include many who get a free commute to cities elsewhere. The average of my rough estimate indicates that it's worth almost $7,000 a year per car and it is a tax-free benefit to those officers.

Shannon Miller of KARK did additional reporting on the story last night. 

"Take home cars are not a benefit that we negotiate with the city as part of our benefits and wages," John Gilchrist with the Little Rock Fraternal Order of Police said.

Gilchrist says the take-home cars come with certain assignments within the department including Captains, detectives, and major crimes.

"If I need a swat team, I don't want to have to wait for somebody to go get their car and equipment to come get that I think that's just ludicrous," Gilchrist said.

Gilchrist may make a fair point about special officers, but there are not 188 SWAT officers. 

Here's the list of officers with cars, not counting undercover officers. It includes a lot of brass, officers of high rank who likely qualify more by position than special duty.

I also got feedback on Facebook and elsewhere from spouses of police, who complained about questions being raised. They said spouses were on call 24/7 when they had the cars. Here's the policy, which states that cars go to officers, with chief approval, to those who might have to be called in on off-hours. 

Fair points from FOP and family. But my sources say this program has grown exponentially in recent years. Do we really need 188 take-home cars?  How often are they used for special call-ins? Are faraway brass really more important at a Little Rock scene — even when they live an hour away — than the 160 officers who choose to make Little Rock home and could arrive at crime scenes far more quickly?

I acknowledge that the preponderance of take-home cars among people who don't live in Little Rock is more likely a symptom than a cause of the disease by which the majority of Little Rock cops don't want to live in the city that pays their salary. At a minimum, it illustrates the force divide starkly — most of the cops we theoretically most need in special situations don't live in Little Rock and take longer to get to work when we do need them.

KARK talked with Ken Richardson:

"We end up subsidizing the public safety needs in these outlining communities as well because you end up having the police cars parked in their driveways," Little Rock Board of Director Ken Richardson said.

Richardson says he's asked for take-home cars for officers living in the city for years as an incentive and to promote safety throughout neighborhoods.

"During the meeting, he gave me a cost associated with that and he said it was five million dollars during the agenda meeting and then the next week during the board meeting that figure rolls to 7.5 million," Richardson said.

The City Board reaction will be interesting. I don't expect Chief Kenton Buckner to agree there's a single person on that list that isn't fully qualified and essential for a take-home car under the policy. Will city directors reflexively bow to the FOP and the cops who've fled the city, much as they're reflexively bowed to the freeway building imperative that it is more important to shave a minute off the commute to Bryant or Cabot than it is to preserve the heart of Little Rock? I fear I know the answer.

PS: Take a look at the brass-heavy roster of Fire Department officials with take home cars — six chiefs, five captains and two firefighters, the majority of whom  don't live in Little Rock.

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