Spokane Police: We Need Better Electric Police Cars

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Electric police cars seem like a no-brainer, right? Well, you’d think so — but just last month there was a story out of Spokane, Washington that we can learn from. The City of Spokane wants to make its fleet all-electric to save on costs to both its budget and to the environment, but things didn’t go so well when the first two electric police cars went into service.

Range & Charging Aren’t The Problem With Electric Police Cars

We’ve seen FUD about vehicle charging for police EVs before, most notably the time that a Fremont, CA, PD Tesla ran out of battery during a pursuit. The naysayers seized on the opportunity to lecture us all about how unsuitable EVs are for police work, but it turned out that the car went on duty with the battery only half-charged and EVs use more energy driving over 100 MPH, like any vehicle. A misguided translation of gas car policy (always start your shift with half a tank) didn’t translate well to EVs, which should always start a shift with a full battery.

Like that Fremont story, the problem this time in Spokane isn’t battery and range. EVs are actually very well-suited to police work. In Fremont, officers tend to drive under 100 miles on a shift, and police EVs spend a lot of time sitting or driving on city streets. In other words, don’t buy the FUD about range and charging.

But, as we learned recently from Spokane PD, that doesn’t mean that Teslas don’t have other issues that make them tricky for police to use.

The Problems Spokane’s Officers Experienced

The problem really comes down to the vehicle’s interior design. It’s built with civilian needs in mind and not police needs.

For one, the interior is too cramped for police. Sure, the stereotypical morbidly obese cope like you see on The Simpsons is sometimes real, but most departments require better physical fitness these days. The real problem comes in when you start trying to get in and out of a vehicle with a duty belt. A gun, a radio, a Taser, spare magazines, handcuffs, and sometimes a small first aid kit all go on that belt. This means a police officer needs a lot more space around the midsection, and only in a small area near the waist.

This means that most normal automotive seats get in the way and make driving with all of that gear very uncomfortable. Plus, I’d imagine that some of that gear would be rough on leather seats.

Another issue they ran into was the center display. Police frequently need to use a laptop in the field to look up plate numbers, check licenses, and even know where they’re supposed to go next and what help is needed in the community. But in a Model 3, this means you need to put the laptop mount in the way of the center display, which controls many vehicle functions. In some cases, this means the center display is very inconvenient.

One final problem they’ve had is outfitting civilian Model 3 vehicles with police equipment. Most manufacturers offer police versions of popular police cars with much of what police need installed from the factory. This saves a lot of time and money when getting the vehicle ready for police work in a particular community. The Tesla vehicles are a lot harder to prep for police work than vehicles meant for policing, which means they’re spending a lot more both in terms of parts and labor to get a Tesla ready for duty.

Spokane PD Isn’t Giving Up On EVs

It’s worth noting that the City of Spokane and Spokane PD aren’t giving up on EVs. Quite the opposite, in fact.

While they’ve found that the Tesla Model 3 is not suitable for patrol work, they plan to look at EVs from other manufacturers that might be a better fit. They need something that’s easier to adapt to police work, has more interior room (especially around the hips) and doesn’t have a center display that would be blocked by a computer. There are other models that may work better, and they intend to try them out, too.

As for the two Model 3 vehicles they already have, they haven’t told anyone. But, from my experience I think the vehicles are likely to end up doing detective or administrative work in the police department. It’s very likely that they’re going to be fighting off emissions for a long time, just not as patrol cars.

How Tesla & Other Manufacturers Can Make Better Electric Police Cars

Spokane’s experience here gives us a lot of good information on how to do better.

First, it shows us that manufacturers do need to study the issue further. It wouldn’t make sense to tailor all vehicles to police work, as most people are just fine with a center display. But it makes sense for manufacturers to talk to police departments and their fleet managers to determine how they can better serve the public safety community. In other words, more study and learning is needed.

So far we do know a few things that can be done to improve the situation for police EVs.

For one, police-customized EVs need to come from the factory. Further study and work with public safety fleet managers is needed, but it shouldn’t be terribly difficult to make sure the chassis is ready to accept police equipment with minimal fuss. Tunnels for electronics cabling, a robust 12-volt system for accessories, an improved cooling system for harsher driving, and custom front and rear panels to make attaching police bumpers are probably going to be part of that discussion.

Another big area for a custom police EV: better seats. A seat with gaps and other design elements that make it more duty belt friendly would be a big improvement. The custom police car Carbon Motors was going to build a few years ago before going out of business had the right idea with these seats:

Press image provided by Carbon Motors.

Another thing that could be done is to either relocate the center display or make it easy for fleets to utilize the display for an in-car computer. Piping the laptop’s display or a better computer mounted in the frunk shouldn’t be too difficult. Some changes to the user interface would probably be needed, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to make this more police-friendly. Many civilians would probably like to use the display for other things, too.

Either way, it’s clear that police EVs can be a wild success, but some of the minor kinks do need to be worked out.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1984 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba