The Albuquerque Police Department offers a special perk to recruit and retain its officers—the use of patrol cars to drive to and from work, free gasoline, insurance and loose regulations outlining what personal errands the cars can be used for.
Despite facing a $10 million city budget shortfall and increased gas prices, all of the department's more than 900 officers are allowed to participate in the program with the idea that driving their patrol cars while off duty will add to the police presence in Albuquerque and help to deter crime. However, many times those officers are seen abusing the privilege by using their taxpayer-funded cars to make trips to the grocery store or to drop their children off at school.
The program, which began in the early '80s, has received its share of criticism in the past, and the department has scaled it back several times because of budget cutbacks. But today the program has expanded.
According to city records, officers who were hired prior to June 2, 2001, are allowed to live within 30 miles of the city limits and still allowed to participate in the program. Officers hired after that date must live within the city limits, but with unlimited access to gas, are given almost free reign with the cars.
APD representatives say they stand behind the program that sends nearly a third of the city's automobile fleet home with the officers.
"This is a good program, but the potential is there for an officer to abuse it," said Jeff Remington, president of the Albuquerque Police Officers' Union. "But you never know when something is going to go down. It is important for these officers to have their patrol cars with them 24-hours-a-day in case of an emergency."
Remington said citizens upset when they see their tax dollars funding the officers' personal lives need to play the "what if?" game in consoling themselves. He said the sheer presence of police cars in city neighborhoods—although more than 200 of them are unmarked and not easily distinguishable from ordinary cars—helps police keep the streets safe.
He said the program is actually designed to save money by preserving the life of the patrol cars. Allowing officers to take them home at night prevents the cars from being used continually in different shifts and encourages officers to take a sense of pride in them, Remington said.
Still, it costs the city nearly $2 million a year to maintain its police car fleet, according to city records. Deborah Yoshimura of the city's Office of Internal Audit said there have been recommendations in the past to end the program, but that APD is adamant about keeping it running. Yoshimura said the city has never done an audit specifically to determine the cost of travel expenses accrued by off duty officers.
Jay Rowland, independent review officer for Albuquerque's Police Oversight Commission, the public's watchdog over the police department, said the commission has only received a few complaints over the years about police officers using their patrol cars for personal use. He said those complaints were about officers having children in the car with them and off duty officers detaining motorists.
"But obviously those things are OK," Rowland said, adding that he thinks the patrol car take home program is successful in deterring crime. "It slows me down when I see a patrol car, whether the officer is on duty or not."
Rowland said the program is important to the functioning of the police department as it is an essential part of each APD officer's compensation package. Accompanying an average salary of more than $30,000 a year, APD's patrol car take home program is one of the most generous in the Southwest. For example, APD is the only police department in a recent study that included Tuscon, El Paso, Las Vegas (Nev.) and Colorado Springs that allows all of its officers to take their work cars home. It's worth noting, the Bernalillo County Sheriff's Department has the same policy as APD.
The department also insures its officers and its vehicles, meaning that if an officer were to get into an accident while off duty and it was his fault, the city could be susceptible to costly lawsuits.
A city-commissioned report in 2001, conducted by an international consulting firm to determine APD's competitive ability to recruit personnel among rival cities, found the department's patrol car take home the least restrictive among the nine cities examined.
And the department spares no expense in providing its officers with the best cars available. While the department still has many outdated cars on the streets, it is refitting its force with pricey Ford Crown Victorias, Trucks and Chevy Tahoes and Suburbans for its SWAT officers, according to the department's operations review department. Several civilian employees of the department are also allowed to use city cars for personal use.
Still, APD is not alone in the city's generous treatment of employees. The Albuquerque Fire Department's higher ups and other city officials are also given government vehicles for personal use.
Lt. Paul Romero of the Operations Review Department said department regulations state that officers can use the patrol cars as they would personal cars. This includes personal errands and childcare responsibilities. He said many of the officers, such as members of APD's SWAT team, have to drop what they are doing at any time to respond to calls.
Romero said there is not currently a restriction on the amount of gas an officer can use through the program and the potential exists for an officer to abuse the privilege. He said officers caught in violation of the program's rules are reprimanded by the department and can face anything from removal from the program to termination from the department.
"Still, it's a very good program that benefits both the department and the city," he said. "It helps the officers to do their jobs better and it ensures that we are able to keep the streets of Albuquerque safe."