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What's the Charge, Officer?

In September 2019, the lead police car in a high-speed chase in Fremont, California radioed to the patrol cars behind him:

“I’m down to 6 miles of battery. I may lose it here in a sec. If someone else is able, can they maneuver into the number one spot?”

Picked up on the police scanner by an alert local muckraker, the news quickly became a national story. The lead car was a Tesla Model S – the country’s first electric patrol car.

“Cop’s Tesla runs out of battery power during high-speed chase,” blared the New York Post headline.

But Fremont police pushed back. “This situation, while embarrassing, is no different from cases where a patrol car runs low (or even dry) of fuel,” they said in a statement, noting that the pursuit of the subject was unaffected. Furthermore, the 2014 Model S had started its day at a slight handicap, half-charged after an overnight flat tire fix.

The incident sparked debate as to whether electric vehicles can fulfill the demanding duties of a patrol car.  Critics contend that police departments are going electric simply to signal their green credentials. It would be nice if they were - transportation is currently the sector of the U.S. economy responsible for the most climate pollution. But few police departments are making the switch with Paris emissions reduction goals in mind. A review of police EVs on the road today suggests that departments are simply choosing the best vehicle for the job. 

EVs have several advantages that make them natural for police work. Acceleration is instantaneous, and the top speed on a Tesla Model 3 is 162 mph, enough to catch almost any car on the road. They’re quiet, which allows them to approach a scene without drawing attention. And their nonpolluting motors are ideal for the frequent stops and idling of police work. And, anecdotally, they’re wicked fun to drive.

Fremont police officers have been impressed with their briefly notorious Tesla, with a spokeswoman calling it a “game changer for pursuits.” She also said that the officers involved in the Sept. 20 chase had recently stopped a vehicle while using the Tesla. That driver told officers, “I saw the Tesla behind me, I knew I couldn’t get away from a Tesla.”

One perceived disadvantage of a Tesla, cost, flips to a benefit when we consider the total cost of ownership over a vehicle’s lifetime. Like municipal transit systems considering electric buses, as we described in a recent report, cities and municipal governments have a role to play in showing the public the advantages of thinking beyond the short-term when it comes to pricing their fleets, especially when accumulated savings could benefit police operating budgets. 

Todd Bertram, Chief of Police of Bargersville, Indiana, patrols in a Tesla Model 3 that was purchased primarily for its cost savings – not its environmental advantages. With savings of $300 a month on gas and a fraction of the maintenance costs, the car is expected to save Bargersville $21,000 over six years – more than enough to recoup the premium paid for a Model 3 over a Dodge Charger. It also sparks conversation – Bertram recalled, “I got a guy for speeding on [State Road] 37 and all he wanted to talk about was the Tesla.”

Westport, Connecticut took delivery of a Tesla Model 3 in December 2019, with Police Chief Foti Koskinas explaining he “believes in being green” but also noting the 5-star crash test rating, front trunk (“frunk”) for emergency equipment and the $13,770 in fuel savings he expects over three years.

Teslas aren’t the only police EVs on the road. A Maryland Smart Energy Communities grant helped the Hyattsville, Maryland Police Department purchase a Chevy Bolt and two outdoor charging stations. Sergeant Richard Hartnett often takes the Bolt out on patrol duty and has found himself talking up the EV’s range and acceleration to curious colleagues from other police departments. He says, “It’s clear to me that EVs like the Bolt EV certainly have a place in law enforcement.”

As cities and counties are stepping up to fill the void of climate leadership at the national level, finding more and more policy levers that are fully theirs to control, one of the strongest options is electrifying municipal fleets. From public buses to police cruisers to garbage trucks to fire engines, widespread fleet upgrades will pose new logistical challenges but also offer significant learning opportunities for cities and the public. By investing in upgrading their fleets and building out the necessary charging infrastructure, municipalities assure their citizens that electric vehicles are not only high-performing but also immediately practical.

The police cruiser is the most visible symbol of state and local power. It’s exciting to see that power being used to promote a better way for all of us to get around.

Photo: Fremont Police