When Ford stopped making Crown Victorias because of their boxy look and low gas mileage, sheriffs and police chiefs were forced to shop around and kick the tires of potential replacements.
They gauged each model's price, durability, gas mileage and maintenance costs. Officers now are driving Ford Interceptors in St. Petersburg, Dodge Chargers in Tampa and Chevy Caprices in Clearwater.
And the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office? It is supersizing its wheels, trading sedans for SUVs.
"We just bought 82 Chevy Tahoes," said Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. Eventually, he intends to put every deputy in a Tahoe, a full-size sport utility vehicle.
The Pinellas Sheriff's Office is the only law enforcement agency in the Tampa Bay area that has chosen to switch to SUVs, but Gualtieri says his deputies need the extra room and it's worth the extra cost. He says he's eager to combat the "misperception" that the new patrol vehicles are expensive gas guzzlers.
A new Tahoe at your local Chevrolet dealership would likely cost you more than $40,000.
"Those are nice vehicles," Gualtieri says. "But we get stripped-down, hard-core police vehicles with no frills, no carpeting, no cloth back seats. The interior is plastic, with a rubberized floor."
He says his department pays $25,851 for each Tahoe and later adds equipment required for any patrol vehicle, such as lights and sirens. The agency's second choice, the Dodge Charger, would have cost $21,241. The difference in cost: $4,610.
However, when you order 82 patrol vehicles, the difference adds up to more than $375,000.
Gualtieri says "a lot of thought and analysis went into this decision."
"The feedback we got from deputies was, 'I need the space,' " he said. "This is the deputy's office for a minimum of eight hours a day. It's important that it be a good working environment."
A constitutional officer, the sheriff has the authority to make this decision on his own. The Pinellas County Commission, which approves the sheriff's budget, hasn't objected.
A few other sheriff's offices around Florida are switching to Tahoes, including Alachua and Seminole counties. But the sheriffs in Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties are all going with cheaper sedans: Dodge Chargers, Chevy Impalas and Ford Interceptors, respectively.
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For decades, the Ford Crown Victoria was America's standard police car, an unwelcome sight in rearview mirrors everywhere.
Now the police car market is up for grabs. Chevrolet and Ford SUVs are making some inroads, although sedans still dominate.
Tampa police test-drove the Charger, Caprice and Ford Interceptor, which is based on the Taurus model. They chose the Charger because it was cheapest and got good gas mileage.
Vehicle safety and interior space are key, said Maj. Daniel Slaughter of the Clearwater Police Department, which is buying Caprices.
"As cars have become more compact, an athletic-built police officer wearing all the equipment that is required — gun-equipment belt, bullet-resistant vest, etc. — can find the driver area quite compact," he said.
Before switching to Ford Interceptors, St. Petersburg was cautious. A few years ago it bought dozens of Chevy Impalas in a cost-saving move, but later removed them from the patrol fleet because they were too small for the cage that separates officers from detainees.
"We gave Interceptors to our bigger guys to make sure they have enough room. All the feedback I'm hearing is that they absolutely love the cars," said St. Petersburg Detective Mark Marland, president of the Pinellas County Police Benevolent Association, an officers' union.
Why not Tahoes? "The Interceptors are better with fuel consumption and overall cost. Tahoes cost more," he said.
Gualtieri says the Tahoe gets the same gas mileage the Crown Victoria did, so the sheriff isn't spending more on gas.
In an annual and influential test of police vehicles administered by the Michigan State Police, the Tahoe earned high marks for its speed, braking distance and ergonomics.
Its gas mileage was comparable to the Crown Victoria and the Caprice, which each got 14 mpg in city driving. But the Tahoe fared worse than the Charger's 19 mpg and the Impala's 17 mpg.
Despite the reputation some SUVs have for being top-heavy, Chevrolet says its Tahoe police pursuit vehicle doesn't have a higher rollover rate than other patrol vehicles because of a special stabilization package designed for police cars. Also, the pursuit-rated SUVs sit three inches lower than the civilian model, Gualtieri says.
Gualtieri adds that the extra interior space is crucial for his agency's 42 field training officers, who sit in a patrol car's passenger seat while a rookie deputy drives.
The sheriff demonstrated his point by wedging his 6-foot-4 frame into the passenger seat of a Chevy Impala patrol car. His left side was jammed against the computer mounted on the center of the dashboard.
"If you have any size at all and then you put on a gun belt and a vest, you're absolutely miserable," he said. "You're crammed into a sardine can."
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151.