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Pinellas sheriff replacing patrol cruisers with SUVs

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Published:   |   Updated: September 6, 2013 at 08:02 PM

In his 8 1/2 years with the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, Deputy David Mancusi has driven a Dodge Intrepid, a Ford Crown Victoria, both sedans, and now a Chevrolet Tahoe, a sport utility vehicle.

The trouble with the Intrepid, as the 34-year-old sees it, was that it bottomed out if Mancusi ever had to drive over a median to go in the opposite direction. There wasn’t much room inside, either, for the deputy’s equipment and his 5-foot 10-inch, 195-pound frame.

The Crown Vic, as Ford’s police car has long been called, was an improvement over the Intrepid, with more room, and better maneuverability. But Ford no longer makes that car.

When Mancusi was named the community policing officer for St. Pete Beach nine months ago, he was assigned one of the agency’s new Tahoes, and he’s ecstatic.

“With the Tahoe, I don’t have any back issues at the end of the day,” Mancusi said. “I’m telling everyone now, ‘You may love your Crown Vic, but you’ll love your Tahoe even more.’ “

The sheriff’s office decided to go with the SUV, despite the fact it costs more and gets worse mileage than most of the police sedans now on the market because it gives deputies enough room for them to do their jobs effectively, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said.

“It became apparent to me they didn’t have enough space,” Gualtieri said. “It’s their office for eight hours a day.”

The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office is the only major law enforcement agency in the Tampa Bay area to replace the Crown Vic with an SUV for patrol duty. Between this year and last year, the agency has purchased roughly 130 Tahoes. It plans to replace its entire fleet of about 500 patrol vehicles with Tahoes over the next few years.

After Ford stopped making the Crown Vic after the 2011 model year, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office went with the Dodge Charger, said agency spokeswoman Debbie Carter.

“As with any vehicle selection, price, maintenance, durability and fuel economy were all criteria considered in the final decision,” Carter said in an email.

“Based upon the available models, the Dodge Charger was the most cost-effective solution for our office.”

The car has rear-wheel drive and a fuel-efficient V-6 engine that produces horsepower equivalent to that of the Crown Victoria’s V-8 engine, she said.

The Tampa Police Department has also purchased some Dodge Chargers over the last few months, said Tampa police spokeswoman Andrea Davis.

While each Tahoe costs the Pinellas Sheriff’s Office $25,872, each Charger costs the Tampa Police Department $21,830, according to numbers provided by each agency. The vehicles get roughly the same gas mileage: 15 mpg for the Tahoe compared to 16-18 mpg for the Charger, according to a 2013 study by Michigan State Police. Tampa’s Chargers get 18 mpg in the city, Davis said.

A few years ago, the St. Petersburg Police Department began switching from the Crown Vic to the Chevrolet Impala but then realized there was a problem.

For the side air bags to deploy effectively, there needed to be some space where the end of the prisoner cage at the back approaches the rear passenger door.

There was a patch of Velcro over the space that could give way if the side air bags deployed, but the police union considered it flimsy and argued a prisoner could punch through it to get to an officer.

Forty-seven Impalas that were purchased went to officers, such as sergeants and school resources officers, who didn’t do much prisoner transport. The agency went with the Ford Interceptor for the 2013 fiscal year.

Among other things, the Interceptor has all-wheel drive, allowing for better handling in inclement weather, and it’s equipped with a V-6 engine that gets better gas mileage than the Crown Vic, said St. Petersburg Police spokesman Mike Puetz.

For instance, while idling, the Ford Interceptor uses 35 percent less fuel than the Crown Vic, Puetz said.

Each Interceptor costs the agency $22,876, slightly more than what Tampa pays for the Charger and several thousand less than what the Tahoe costs the Pinellas sheriff’s office.

“Not everything’s about money,” said Gualtieri. “I think it’s the right thing to do by the deputies. It’s the right thing to do operationally.

“I think in the long run, any cost differences will be offset by the residual value of a Tahoe versus a car at auction, and I think we’ll be able to keep them longer,” the sheriff said.

Mancusi, the community policing officer in St. Pete Beach, likes driving his.

He has no problem driving over medians if he has to, and he can simply toss his mountain bicycle in the back, rather than taking a wheel off or attaching a bike rack to his bumper before bike patrols.

The Tahoe is also better than the Crown Vic when it comes to navigating the intermittent flooding Pinellas County experiences following storms, he said.

“Everyone’s been waiting for theirs,” he said. “People that drive it love it.”

sthompson@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-6504

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