By Chelsea Krotzer
OLYMPIA — The Washington State Patrol is putting 200 new Chevrolet Caprices on the state’s roads, replacing parts of an aging fleet of Ford Crown Victorias.
The State Patrol uses 714 Crown Victorias statewide, 95 of which are in Thurston and Pierce counties. The agency chose the Caprice based on its driving ability, storage space and cost. The State Patrol uses the Dodge Charger for its aggressive-driver apprehension program but decided it wouldn’t work for patrol officers because of its small storage space.
Ford’s new Interceptor sedan, which replaces the company’s discontinued Crown Victoria, wasn’t available in time for testing when the contract decision was made.
Jeff Speer, assistant State Patrol fleet manager of the Caprice, said the car’s handling, design and computer system make it “significantly better and safer to drive than the old cars.”
The State Patrol will purchase all the Caprices by July 1. The cars are taken to the agency’s fleet warehouse in Tumwater for retrofitting, where crews add thousands of dollars’ worth of emergency equipment.
Once taxes and retrofitted equipment are factored in, the total cost of the new cars is about $7.8 million. Funding comes from the agency’s highway account, which is funded by the Legislature, said State Patrol fleet and supply manager Steve Smeland.
Crews will aim to issue 15 cars a month. The time it takes to retrofit each car decreases as technicians become more accustomed to the new cars.
“It’s a new process,” said Bill Garrido, State Patrol equipment technician. “It depends on the equipment that needs to go in.”
Garrido and another technician added the divider that makes up the prisoner cage Monday. The cars are outfitted with radar, a global positioning system, two cameras, computer docking systems, prisoner cages, spotlights, light bars and push bars.
One change from the Crown Victoria era is the addition of wrap-around bumpers. WSP’s other patrol cars only have push bars on the front of the bumper.
The sturdier bumper had to be installed to compensate for the shape of the Caprice’s front end, which made a key maneuver used by patrol officers difficult to complete safely. Pursuing officers use the fronts of their cars to push eluding cars in a controlled spin, called a pit maneuver.
“Because of the car’s design, we were afraid that was going to lessen the ability of the trooper to perform the pit maneuver and the amount of damage it might cause the car,” Speer said.
The cars are being outfitted with new technology in anticipation of future programs. An external GPS unit on the car is being installed as a step toward the mobile office platform, an idea still being worked on.
“The idea behind it is these troopers’ cars, they are not really just a car anymore,” Speer said. “They are really an office platform. The ideal we are trying to shoot for is to have troopers have everything they need in their car: camera, computer, radar, the whole nine yards.”
The agency also is testing the possibility of wirelessly sending collision reports and tickets, instead of requiring officers to travel to district offices and upload information.
“It would make so much more efficient use of their time,” Speer said. “That is where we are heading in the future.”
There are 13 Caprices already in service statewide, including one by a sergeant in Thurston County, according to the State Patrol.
None is in service yet in Pierce County, but the first completed Caprice was on public display at the State Patrol exhibit at the Puyallup Fair.
The agency received lots of positive feedback about the car, Trooper Guy Gill said.
“This platform is not available in the U.S.,” he said. “People don’t know what to make of it because they have never seen it.”
Officers have also been pleased by the car’s look and abilities, Speer said.
“It works especially well on cornering and high-speed curves,” he said. “It’s fascinating to see how well this car performs.”
Officers must complete four hours of training before they can use the new cars.
Cadets set to graduate from the State Patrol academy in Shelton this winter will be issued mid-mileage cars from troopers with more seniority, meaning those senior troopers will need Caprices as replacements.
The cadets will take the mid-mileage cars out for field-officer training for six weeks, beginning next month.
“We don’t give brand-new cars to cadets,” Speer said. “We usually pull cars at midrange, between 35,000 to 90,000 miles.”
Cars are typically taken out of service once they reach 110,000 miles, but because of the difficult economy, there are “several hundred” on the road with more than 140,000 miles.
“Troopers cover a lot of miles, especially those working in areas more isolated and handle calls on several different counties,” Smeland said.