KAILUA-KONA — About a decade ago, the Hawaii Police Department acquired its first fleet of marked police vehicles, costing around $2 million.
Today, 29 of those 35 model year 2008 sedans and sport-utility vehicles remain operational, with each averaging 200,000 miles after being used 24/7 over the past 10 years.
“There are some vehicles that are just hanging on, on the outside outer districts, but in Hilo, Puna and Kona, the vehicles are down to nothing, basically,” said HPD administrative bureau Assistant Chief Marshall Kanehailua.
That’s why the department is seeking to add new rides to its fleet.
“We’re at a critical point where we need to get some of these vehicles either repaired or replaced,” Kanehailua said.
Most of the vehicles, 21, are located in the department’s larger districts, Kona, Hilo and Puna, while the outer districts have one to two each that are typically in better condition. In the larger districts, and in some of the medium-sized districts, the marked vehicles continue to be assigned to a patrol officer on every watch while other “spare” vehicles are used to transport custodies or when needed.
Purchasing new vehicles is preferred because repair costs are escalating and concerns over safety and liability should a vehicle have an issue, such as the brakes failing. The police department does not have its own maintenance facility and instead contracts repair work.
“Liability is beyond what we are budgeting for these vehicles should something happen to an officer, bystander or other vehicle,” Kanehailua said.
That money referred to is $600,000 allocated in this year’s budget to purchase 10 marked police cars, a mix of sedans and small SUVs.
“It’s not going to replace a whole lot, but we’re hoping the bids come in and we get the maximum amount of vehicles,” said Kanehailua.
An invitation for bids, posted March 19, was to be opened today, however, that will be delayed until April 30 because the department plans to change specs after receiving just one bid inquiry to encourage more competitive submissions, he added.
Reached Friday afternoon, Mayor Harry Kim said that despite the current tight budget, he saw it a priority to replace some of the aging fleet vehicles noting “this should have been done before.” The goal, he said, is to “continue to have the fleet grow.”
The move to purchase new vehicles is the first attempt since the county acquired the 35 marked vehicles in 2008-09. The initial procurement followed the county instituting a Police Fleet Implementation Group to study setting up a fleet vehicle program to address questions over the department’s use of mostly unmarked vehicles lacking uniform paint, police emblems and other official markings.
At the time, all officers drove their private vehicles and were reimbursed for furnishing it for police use.
Critics of the subsidized vehicle program said the privately owned cars weren’t as safe as typical patrol cars equipped with cages, computers and contraband-proof seats, and were not recognizable to visitors.
Program supporters said police cars displaying a lone blue light fit Hawaii’s relaxed lifestyle, boosted officer morale, were cheaper to maintain, provided officers with more pay, helping recruitment and retention, and facilitated a quicker, more wide-spread response during a natural disaster.
The group issued its findings in a December 2005 report, recommending a five-year transition to all fleet vehicles, starting with 50 specially equipped vehicles.
The county ultimately opted to implement a hybrid program with county-owned fleet cars and subsidized vehicles. The fleet vehicles, each costing $55,000 to $67,000, began hitting the streets in May 2008.
Budgetary constraints since have kept police from expanding the fleet, said Kanehailua.
The current set up remains a hybrid of the operable county-owned fleet and the officers’ subsidized vehicles.
“The department is of the position that our current subsidized vehicles along with county-owned marked blue and white vehicles provide us with the best means to service the public given the current financial situation of the county,” Hawaii County Deputy Chief Kenneth Bugado said via email.
“We would be supportive of a full marked vehicle fleet program if it would be fully funded to ensure that we would have adequate number of vehicles operational (i.e., having spare vehicles, adequate repair facilities, etc.) that would provide the same coverage as with the subsidized program. Additionally, that at any given time allows for the deployment of 100 percent of our patrol force into the field in the event of a natural disaster, similar to our current capabilities with the subsidized program.”
Currently, police have 450 sworn officers with six vacancies.
Patrol officers and sergeants, traffic enforcement unit officers, and all uniformed lieutenants received $600 per month to subsidize the use of their vehicle while all others get $562. Each also receives a gallon of gas for every 10 miles driven on official duty.