Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
Little Rock City Manager Bruce Moore has asked the chief of police and his assistant chiefs to review the department's policy on who gets to take home police cars after the Arkansas Times' Arkansas Blog reported that 141 of the cars are going to officers — at no cost to them — who do not live in the city of Little Rock.
The expensive subsidy provided to nonresident officers has not been part of the ongoing debate about a city residency requirement for Little Rock police officers — rejected Sept. 6 by the City Board of Directors.
Officers say the provision of the cars is not a perk but a necessary provision that allows them to respond to emergencies at any time.
Information released in answer to Freedom of Information Act requests indicated that 189 police officers — more than a third of the 528-person force — are allowed to use their police vehicles to commute to work. Forty-eight of those officers live in Little Rock.
The city pays for fuel, oil and maintenance of the cars. The home use is covered by the Municipal League insurance that covers the city fleet. 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, if you consider that the federal government estimates the cost of using a car (for allowable reimbursement rate purposes) at 54 cents a mile.
The commuting benefit, it seems, offsets in some measure the complaint by officers who defend living elsewhere that Little Rock is too expensive. They also say Little Rock has poor schools and, ironically, too much crime.
However, City Director Erma Hendrix, in pushing for a residency requirement, said that race is the real reason officers choose not to live in Little Rock. Indeed, white officers overwhelmingly reject Little Rock as a place to live, while the majority of black officers live in the city. Hendrix argued that requiring officers to live in Little Rock would benefit race relations. She and the two other black directors were the only votes for a residency requirement.
Incentives to officers to live in Little Rock have been part of the debate. But the provision of take-home cars, which saves wear and tear on personal vehicles, could be seen as an incentive to live outside Little Rock.
According to 2015 figures, there were 354 white officers and 160 black officers. Only 75 white officers chose to live in Little Rock; 99 black officers did. The city did not provide a racial breakdown on which officers got take-home cars, but take-home car privileges would likely not depart much from those percentages.
Some of the officers who are commuting come from as far away as Hot Springs, 110 miles away (round trip), and Searcy, 98 miles away (round trip). The cities that Little Rock officers commute from, with estimates of round-trip distances to the cities and the number of officers living there in parentheses, are: Alexander (32 miles, 14 officers), Austin (54, 3), Bauxite (49, 2), Beebe (68, 1), Benton (52, 21), Bigelow (78, 1), Bryant (41, 16), Cabot (48, 11), Conway (62, 5), Greenbrier (83, 3), Hensley (39, 2), Hot Springs (110, 2), Jacksonville (30, 2), Lonoke (52, 3), Mabelvale (25, 6), Malvern (94, 1), Maumelle (33, 19), Mayflower (42, 1), North Little Rock (10, 9), Perryville (92, 1), Redfield (49, 1), Searcy (98, 1), Sherwood (23, 11), Sheridan (70, 1), Vilonia (77, 3) and Ward (64, 1). If you multiply each commute distance by the number of officers and multiply that total by five days a week, officers are putting nearly 30,000 miles a week on the city fleet. Multiply that times 48 (giving four weeks off for sick days, vacation, leave and other non-use) and the mileage totals almost 1.5 million. At 54 cents a mile, the cost is something in the range of $780,000 a year at federal reimbursement rates, or an average of about $6,800 per out-of-town resident.
City Director Ken Richardson said in an interview last week that he's long advocated for take-home cars for all city resident police officers, both as an incentive to live here and because they are visible symbols of police presence. However, Richardson said he was told by Moore that could cost $5 million to $7.5 million. Moore, on the other hand, has told the Times that the city has made no effort to compute the cost of providing free cars for commuting.
Take-home privileges are decided by the chief of police. The policy on take-home cars is that "certain department personnel in specialized assignments which by the nature of the assignment mandate their return to duty during off-duty hours for investigation or other critical police responses may be assigned a take-home Department vehicle."
John Gilchrest, with the Little Rock Fraternal Order of Police, told KARK-TV, Channel 4, reporter Shannon Miller last week that "If we need a SWAT team, I don't want to have to wait for somebody to go get their car and equipment to come ... I think that's just ludicrous."
Director Richardson told KARK that Little Rock ends up "subsidizing the public safety needs in these outlying communities as well because you end up having the police cars parked in their driveways."
Cars are also provided to 33 city employees who are not members of the police force, including 18 Fire Department personnel (six chiefs, five captains and two firefighters), two assistant city managers, and a total of 13 employees of housing, parks and public works. Of that number, 19 employees do not live in Little Rock.
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