DADE CITY — Most mornings, Officer Cristina Diaz hops into her patrol vehicle and heads down Pasco Avenue, veering south toward Church Avenue and eventually onto the Hardy Trail.
Residents smile and wave at her. Others ask to take pictures of the GEM, or global electric motorcar, that Diaz and other officers use for community policing and special events.
The battery-operated car resembles an ergonomic golf cart with a few law enforcement musts: blue lights and a Dade City Police Department emblem attached to the front. The four-wheeled GEM is one of two eco-friendly vehicles — the other is a three-wheeler called a T3 — that the department purchased in the past year using police impact fee funds.
Dade City has joined a handful of other cities in the Tampa Bay area whose officers are using electric vehicles to patrol school grounds or police heavily populated events such as parades.
"It's amazing, because when you ride them, people will come out and talk to you," said Chief Ray Velboom. "I've had people come out and say, 'What's that?' "
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Last fall, a sales representative from Coconut Creek-based Emergency Vehicle Supply stopped by Velboom's department to shop around a T-3. Velboom thought the electric vehicle, which looks like a motorized tricycle, would help officers navigate large crowds during car shows and the Kumquat Festival, and provide community policing in neighborhoods.
But Velboom wasn't sure how the Police Department could afford the car until he kicked the idea around with city officials. That's when Velboom realized he could use public safety impact fees — funds earmarked from new construction that can be used for police cars or equipment.
Mayor Scott Black said the commission voted 5-0 in November to allow Velboom to spend $18,849 to buy the electric vehicles.
"People may question it (the purchase) until we tell them it comes from specific money dedicated for this type of purchase," he said. "It's a conversation piece, that's for sure. And, it serves a purpose."
By the end of the year, the T3 and the GEM, which Velboom found during an Internet search, were delivered to the Police Department. The vehicles are stored in a shed behind headquarters with police bicycles, Velboom said.
Officers get to use the GEM and the T3 first-come, first-served, Velboom said.
"The administration staff uses it for errands during the day," Velboom said. "I park my police car and sometimes don't get back in until the end of the day."
Downtown business owner Kim Debyah, of Serenity Tan and Spa, says she was intrigued when she saw Diaz zipping through town in the T3.
"I've seen it out there," Debyah said. "She came around with it, and I asked her what it was. I don't have a problem with it."
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Other Tampa Bay cities are also using environmentally friendly electric cars to do police work.
The Clearwater Police Department bought a GEM about six years ago, said Rick Carnley, assistant director of general services. The department replaced that car with a new one in 2006 by using $9,810 of budget money designated for purchases of items less than $25,000, Carnley said.
A school resource officer uses the electric car to patrol the parking lot at Countryside High School, Carnley said.
In Tarpon Springs, officers have two GEM and two T3 cars that are used for special events at the Sponge Docks, said City Manager Mark Lecouris. The vehicles are also used by school resource officers and for community policing, Lecouris said.
The city paid $5,000 for the GEM models in 2000 and 2002, Lecouris said, and paid about $7,000 for the T3s.
The funds came from confiscated drug money that the department gets a portion of after a criminal case is closed, Lecouris said. The department also gets money after assisting in a drug bust with the Drug Enforcement Administration.
"These (cars) are financed by the drug dealers of Tarpon Springs and surrounding areas," Lecouris said joking. "This isn't tax money."
Back in Dade City, Diaz is continuing to draw attention to the department's GEM as she makes her way around town. Once, a woman asked if she could hop in the car and take a picture with Diaz. The two of them posed while a friend took a snapshot.
Liability issues prevent Diaz from agreeing to other requests.
"Sometimes, they ask for a ride," Diaz said. "I have to tell them no, since it is a police vehicle."
Camille C. Spencer can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4609.