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Idling police cruisers: a necessary nuisance?

One night last fall, several Concord police officers arrived at the parking lot of Makris Lobster and Steak House on Sheep Davis Road to investigate an alcohol-induced fender-bender. They made a swift arrest and began interviewing witnesses, using the headlights of an officer’s idling cruiser to illuminate the scene.

After a few minutes, according to police reports, two of the officers glanced back at the cruiser and noticed something atypical: a bald man in dark clothes leaning into its driver’s side. The man, 61-year-old Paul Simard, later told the officers he had been angry that the car was kept running, and was simply trying to shut the engine off.

“Paul stated that he was a resident of Concord and that his taxes pay for the gas that was being wasted while the cruiser was idling,” one of the officers wrote in his report.

Simard was arrested and eventually fined $124 on a violation. He declined to comment for this story, but his experience raises two germane questions: how much fuel does the police department use, and can it do more to cut back?

The department has actually trimmed its annual consumption considerably in recent years. In fiscal year 2008, it burned through a little less than 53,000 gallons of gasoline, down about 5,000 gallons from the year before. It dropped 8,000 gallons in fiscal year 2009, and has hovered around 47,000 gallons annually in the years since, said Robert LeBreux, the city’s fleet manager. All the police vehicles run on gasoline.

The biggest decline, in fiscal year 2009, was part of a citywide effort to slash expenses amid the recession, LeBreux said. The city downsized its municipal fleet by about 20 vehicles, replaced other vehicles with smaller versions and piloted a program in which idle-reducing devices were installed in seven city vehicles and a police sedan used for detail work.

“We really started paying attention to where and how we can save fuel,” LeBreux said.

The idling devices, which allow a vehicle’s warning lights to operate without draining the battery, are still in use; in fact, two more have been installed. The police sedan, however, has been retired and replaced by an old patrol cruiser. The devices are not easily transferrable, LeBreux said.

The police department said it tries to limit idling whenever possible, but that public and officer safety are bigger priorities. On traffic stops, for instance, officers routinely leave their cruisers running in case they need to give chase or make a sudden escape. Stops typically last no more than 10 minutes, said Lt. Timothy O’Malley, a spokesman.

The officers are “focused on the people they’re after, not on the engine,” O’Malley said.

In part because of that, O’Malley said, the department is wary of using anti-idling technology for anything other than detail work, such as blocking off a road during construction or maintenance projects.

In an instance such as Simard’s, O’Malley said, the patrol cruiser can run its headlights without the engine running for no more than about 20 minutes before the battery dies.

O’Malley said the department does encourage officers to “cut back” in circumstances in which there is no immediate threat or need. “No one here is going, ‘Ha ha ha, let’s use all the world’s resources,’ ” he said.

LeBreux said he has yet to calculate whether or how much the idle-reducing devices have saved the city, both in cost and emissions. They were initially expected to save a combined 3,000 gallons of gas per year.

The city’s overall fuel consumption has trended down since 2007. LeBreux said he currently purchases 134,000 gallons of diesel and 118,000 gallons of gas annually, including allocations for the school district and fire and police departments. By comparison, in fiscal year 2008 he bought 150,000 gallons of diesel and 128,000 gallons of gas.

The city has further cut vehicle-related consumption by purchasing two vans that run on natural gas, replacing outdated vehicles with fuel efficient models and shortening driving routes when possible. It has also adopted an anti-idling policy for city vehicles, though it is unclear how or to what degree that is enforced.

To experiment with more technology, LeBreux said, the city would need a surplus of backup vehicles.

“We’re kind of a victim of our own success,” he said. “We don’t have a lot of backup to use if something new doesn’t work.”

But new initiatives may be coming. Robert Werner, a city counselor who heads the Energy and Environment Committee, said he plans to explore how the city can invest in more fuel-reducing technology, possibly including purchasing more anti-idling devices.

The devices have become more expensive in recent years, LeBreux noted, nearly doubling from $500 each in 2010.

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, jblackman@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)

Leave the cops alone. The administration should place omalley and lebreux on the Main Street sidewalk committee, these guys could easily calculate the fossil fuels proposed to be wasted by heating the proposed sidewalks.

Great in theory, but I was at one Concord location on Friday, where three CPD officers chewed the fat for no less than 30 minutes, while at least one of their three cruisers idled outside. Not much evidence of fuel conservation in that case. Just sayin'.

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