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Panel OKs funding for take-home squads

The Superior Police Department’s fleet of vehicles outside the Government Center could be partially replaced by vehicles officers living in Superior could take home at the end of their shift. Studies show assigned vehicles last longer and are less expensive to maintain. The city’s current fleet is typically traded in with more than 100,000 after three years. Jed Carlson/ jcarlson@superiortelegram.com

Superior could soon assign squad cars to officers living in the city.

The city's Finance Committee approved funding three cars to launch a take-home squad program in Superior.

The goals of the program are to reduce wear and tear on squad cars, create an incentive for officers to live in the city and improve neighborhood safety.

While startup costs for the program are considerable, the city anticipates savings long term — vehicles that are better maintained and last longer than police department fleet vehicles.

Superior Police Chief Nicholas Alexander said his goal is to add a few vehicles for the take-home squad program with a three- to five-year rollout for the 19 officers that would be eligible for the program. To be eligible, officers must complete their probationary period and must live in the city.

"Overall, you do the research on this — I haven't found a study from the cost perspective that found negatives to a take-home squad program," Alexander said.

Studies have shown that assigned vehicles last longer than those that run 24 hours a day with multiple officers using the vehicle.

The fleet squad also creates inefficiencies in terms of officers' time at the start of their shift.

Alexander said it can take up to 30 minutes at the start of a shift for an officer to get the vehicle set up — moving equipment to squad cars and logging into computer, radio and camera systems.

By contrast, he said the take-home program would allow officers to set up their vehicle and remain logged in when an officer gets into the vehicle.

The startup costs for the program are not cheap — estimated at about $58,000 per vehicle based on 2017 costs — but there are many benefits to the program, Alexander said.

"Presence is still the No. 1 preventative tool for law enforcement," Alexander said. "An officer being present, presence on streets reduces traffic, presence in neighborhoods and business districts reduces burglaries ... it gives the perception that we are a larger police department because there is a presence in neighborhoods even when an officer is sleeping."

Alexander said it can also serve as a tool for recruiting new officers.

"I do want to express my support for it because there is some decent evidence that over the long term, this is a better way to take care of our equipment, meaning our squad cars," Mayor Jim Paine said. "It saves money on maintenance because officers are taking their cars home. They generally maintain their cars a little bit better."

Alexander said take-home squads would have considerably less idle time, which adds to the cost of maintaining the vehicle.

Right now, Superior squad cars are typically traded-in after three years, with more than 100,000 miles on them, Alexander said. Take-home cars, by comparison, could last seven to 10 years because they are driven a portion of the day by one person, the chief said.

While the city's fleet of police vehicles is adequate under normal circumstances, Alexander said it was "woefully inadequate" during the Husky Energy refinery fire, when all officers were called in to deal with the emergency. The chief said officers had to ride in vehicles from Duluth and Hermantown to get where they were needed. Assigned vehicles would have alleviated some of the shortage and could have responded directly where needed rather than stopping in at the station, Alexander said.

After having a budget surplus last year, Alexander said he saw an opportunity to fund three vehicles for the program.

Finance Director and Senior Administrator Jean Vito said the take-home squads, like the police department fleet, should be funded through the city's capital improvement program.

The Finance Committee concurred.

"Every time we add a car to the take-home program, it reduces the strain on the fleet," Alexander said. However, he said, it wouldn't eliminate the need for the fleet vehicles.

The mayor said there is also community building aspect to a squad car sitting in a neighborhood.

"Neighbors like having police cars in their neighborhood," Paine said. "It helps make the neighborhood feel more safe. It probably makes the neighborhood more safe, and it's a really great incentive for officers, especially young or new officers to live in the city of Superior. Not to sound prejudicial to our officers that live outside of the city, but there's a lot of value to have officers live in the community they are protecting."

Officers selected for the take-home squads would be determined based on seniority and merit, Alexander said.

"I love this ... we've talked about this from the beginning, when I first got elected," said Councilor Brent Fennessey, a committee member. "Even if this didn't make sense — dollars and cents — it would still make sense."

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