ST. PETERSBURG — Police Chief Chuck Harmon said he is removing dozens of new energy-efficient cars from his patrol fleet because the vehicles are unsuitable for transporting suspects.
The 2009 Chevrolet Impalas were scheduled to be rolled into the department's fleet last month as part of a cost-saving measure that would have saved the city thousands of dollars each year in vehicle and gas fees.
Instead, they've sat mostly untouched for weeks as city officials debated what to do with the ergonomically challenged, less secure vehicles.
Unknown to city officials, Chevrolet outfitted the 2009 model with single side curtain airbags, which prohibit the installation of standard dividers to separate the front of the cruiser from the rear, where suspects are kept, Harmon said.
An installed cage must have a 4- to 5-inch gap between the end of the cage and the rear door to allow the airbags to deploy. That space leaves enough room for an unrestrained suspect to reach out and grab the driver, Harmon said.
The cage manufacturer devised a bolted cover to close off the space, but the device still allows for a suspect to reach toward the front compartment of the vehicle, Harmon said.
Department policy recommends suspects be belted and handcuffed, but Harmon said riders are occasionally left unrestrained.
"We haven't heard of a specific issue where someone has gotten control while in transport, but it doesn't mean it can't happen," Harmon said.
The modified cage also prevents tall officers from comfortably leaning back in the seat, he said.
Union officials first complained about the vehicles' safety issues in December.
The Impalas now will be given to sergeants and community service and school resource officers who don't regularly transport suspects, Harmon said.
Patrol officers will continue to use Ford Crown Victorias, the department's favored vehicle, Harmon said.
Council member Karl Nurse began campaigning for greener police cars in August 2008. He said he would not oppose the department's decision to turn the Impalas over to officers who do not regularly transport suspects.
"I just want to make sure we continue to figure out what is the most efficient vehicle for us," Nurse said.
The department purchased 47 Impalas this year at Nurse's urging because the vehicles were cheaper than the Crown Victorias, which were slated to be discontinued, and slightly more fuel efficient.
The Crown Victoria starts at $19,420 and gets roughly 11 miles per gallon, said Harmon. The Impala starts at $18,496 and gets roughly 12 miles per gallon.