Chief: More Cruisers Needed

WHEELING – Police Chief Shawn Schwertfeger will ask City Council to add four additional cruisers to his fleet – a direct result of the November election overturning a law that required him to assign two officers to each patrol car.

Each January, city department heads usually are consumed with the task of compiling their budget requests for the next fiscal year, which are due to City Manager Robert Herron by Jan. 18. But Schwertfeger does not want to wait until July to upgrade his fleet as he prepares to deploy more single-officer patrols in the new year – putting a greater number of vehicles in use at any given time.

“We’re looking to add a couple additional cars immediately. … Our fleet is acceptable now … but we need to start thinking about beefing it up,” he said.

The city typically budgets for the replacement of several police vehicles each year. Council most recently purchased five Dodge Chargers for $147,510 in June, which will be paid off over three years.

Schwertfeger now is asking for four 2013 Ford Interceptors. He said he has discussed his desire to expand the cruiser fleet with Herron, but “he hasn’t given me a green light as far as how many cars.”

Herron could not be reached for comment.

Schwertfeger acknowledged new police vehicles are not cheap – each new vehicle ends up costing about $60,000 by the time it’s outfitted with sirens, lights, a camera and computer system, he said. But he believes the Ford Interceptors will get better gas mileage and are more suited to the needs of a municipal police department than the Dodge Chargers the city has bought in recent years.

The city will open bids for the new cars Jan. 17, although council would have to grant its approval before any purchase is made. Schwertfeger said if the Interceptors perform well, he may continue to push for them in the future.

“Let’s give it a shot, let’s get a couple in and test them out. … We think we’re going to like it better,” Schwertfeger said of the six-cylinder Ford Interceptor, noting its price is comparable with the Dodge Charger and the cars performed well in the Michigan State Police’s annual test of new-model police vehicles.

Schwertfeger believes the Chargers and their more powerful V-8 engines are better suited for interstate driving, where the potential is greater for high-speed pursuits, than neighborhood patrols. And he said the Interceptor features all-wheel drive, a plus considering the Ohio Valley’s often-fickle weather conditions.

He also likes that they are also built higher off the ground than the Dodge vehicles.

“We’ve damaged a few of the Chargers because of low clearance over curbs,” Schwertfeger said.

In addition to Dodge Chargers, the department’s current fleet consists of Ford Explorers and Crown Victorias, Dodge Durangos and one Ford Interceptor sport utility vehicle.

Sunday is the target date for implementation of new patrol protocols, which Schwertfeger has been working with his staff to develop in the weeks since voters struck down the 40-year-old rule widely referred to as the “two-man cruiser” law. Calls involving any type of violent crime will require two officers to respond, while a single officer will be allowed to respond to reports of vandalism, fender-benders and other less dangerous situations.

A legal challenge from the Wheeling Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 38 of the process by which City Council voted to put the cruiser rule before voters remains to be decided. Lodge members claim council’s actions violated the city charter and West Virginia’s open meetings law, allegations the city has repeatedly denied.

The FOP has cited concerns over safety and future staffing levels as reasons why the organization wants the staffing rule to remain in place. City officials have said there are no plans to reduce the size of the department now that the law is off the books.