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High gas prices aren't changing local police operations

So far rising fuel prices haven't put a crimp in law enforcement practices in Merced County, area police chiefs say, but they are studying ways to stretch their budgets.

Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin said with the number of square miles the sheriff's office has to protect, it would be "absolutely irresponsible" to take any patrol cars off the road. To cut back would be a recipe for disaster.

"We are operating normally and we run quite efficiently already," Pazin said. "We won't shortchange the public by cutting down on the miles we drive. We have to patrol and we've got to be seen. We won't pull in our horns because of the price of fuel."

Cmdr. Floyd Higdon of the Merced Police Department said there have been no changes in patrolling policies but at some point changes may have to be made. He said the department tries to put resources where they can do the best job and calls for service dictate patrol patterns.

Mike Conway, city of Merced spokesman, said the city was paying $4.05 per gallon for gasoline and $3.89 a gallon for diesel Thursday. Officers patrolling Merced's north side also have a federal credit card available and discounts average about 10 percent off the pump price.

On the other hand, Dos Palos Police Chief Barry Mann said he is looking at implementing a Midwest city's policy that requires officers to stop every 20 minutes, get out of the car and walk for 10 to 15 minutes, whether it's downtown, at apartment complexes or in neighborhoods.

This will enhance community policing practices and help officers get in closer touch with the community, Mann said. Conceding fuel costs are going up, he said they are trying to cut everywhere they can but won't cut personnel to pay for fuel.

Atwater Police Chief Richard Hawthorne said he's always cognizant of fuel price but there have been no modifications to current policies. These, however, are being checked on a monthly basis.

Los Banos Police Chief Chris Gallagher said his department is taking steps to reduce gas consumption. The department has pulled back on its take-home car program and increased use of motorcycles is envisioned.

"I'm certainly worried about it," Gallagher said. "Our budget for gasoline was $60,000 four years ago and in the $150,000 range in the 2008-2009 budget. It'll be an interesting time if it gets up to $5 a gallon."

Livingston Police Chief Bill Eldridge said no cuts are planned at this stage but the department is trying to come up with ideas to curb some costs. The department is decreasing the number of take-home vehicles and looking at the possibility of downsizing some police vehicles.

However, all equipment is designed for the Ford Crown Victoria sedan and officers' comfort must be considered in any downsizing move, Eldridge said.

"We are required to maintain a safe community 24/7," Eldridge said.

Interim Gustine Police Chief Devon Stavrowsky said at this point the Gustine Police Department is still continuing to run normal patrol operations.

"Right now it's business as usual," Stavrowsky said. "It's something we have to deal with. Given the size of our agency, we spend a significant amount of time out of the car already."

With gasoline at $4 a gallon, police officers around the country are losing the right to take their patrol cars home and are being forced to double up in cruisers and walk the beat more.

The gas crunch could also put an end to the time-honored way cops leave their engines running when they get out to investigate something.

Some police chiefs think the money-saving measures are not all bad, and might actually help them do a better job. But they worry about the loss of take-home cars, saying the sight of a cruiser parked in a driveway or out in front of a home deters neighborhood crime.

In Newberry, S.C., population 10,000, Chief Jackie Swindler is telling his officers to turn off the ignition whenever they are stopped for more than a minute or so, and to get out and walk around more.

"It's not a rolling office that you stay in all day," Swindler said. "You still need to get out and interact with the public."

Jonathan Taylor, a rookie officer in Newberry, said walking the beat in the region's oppressive summer heat may be a drag, but he added: "We're police officers. It's not supposed to be a comfortable job. If getting out and walking helps me do the best job I can, I'm all for it."

In Grainger County, Tenn., Sheriff James Harville planned for gas prices of $2.22 a gallon when he drew up his budget last year.

He has since redrawn the patrol map for the two officers who work each shift, splitting his county in half. He now puts one officer in each half and makes them responsible for all calls in their area.

"That way, unless it's just a life-threatening call, I don't have officers just crisscrossing the county," said Harville, who has asked local officials for an extra $30,000 to keep patrol cars running in the county of 22,000 in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains.

When shifts overlap in Apple Valley, Minn., officers pair up and supervisors send those cruisers to domestic disputes, burglar alarms and other calls that would usually require two officers to respond separately, said Capt. Jon Rechtzigel. Officers also have been asked to turn off their engines whenever possible.

"Years ago, you used to pull in a back lot to investigate something and keep your car running," Rechtzigel said. "You just can't afford to do that anymore."

In the South Carolina town of Elgin, Police Chief Harold Brown delayed hiring a sixth officer so he could use the money for gas.

"I guess you could say rising gas prices have cost me a man," said Brown, who found enough money in his budget to bring the new officer on board a few weeks ago.

The Georgia State Patrol has asked troopers to reduce the amount of time spent driving by 25 percent.

In Evansville, Ind., some officers will lose their take-home cars and others will have to pay more for the privilege. Those living within the city limit will pay $25 every two weeks and those in the surrounding county will pay $35. Both groups previously paid $10. Eleven workers living outside the county will no longer get take-home police cars.

Proposals to restrict the use of take-home police cars also are on the table in Camden, Del., Avon Park, Fla., and Hagerstown, Md.

In Allegany County, Md., Sheriff David Goad told elected officials seeking to limit his department's use of take-home vehicles that "it's a proven fact" that the sight of a patrol car on the road or in a driveway deters crime.

As the fiscal year comes to an end, chiefs and sheriffs are trying to predict how high gas prices will go and craft budgets that won't be blown.

"It's a shot in the dark," Swindler said. "You just have to take your best guess."

Swindler, who joined the force as a patrol officer in 1975 -- back when "only people with rank had a car" -- said the return to old-fashioned police work could be a good thing in some ways, by bringing officers in closer contact with the public.

The chief is doing his part by riding the department's Segway electric scooter during festivals and other events, and is looking to buy smaller, lighter cruisers.

Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2485 or dyawger@mercedsun-star.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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