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Squad cars get driven hard

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Police cars are unique contraptions. From the first day a patrol car rolls into service, it has to be part greyhound and part pack mule. Part paddywagon and part billboard, the most visible symbol of the city it serves.

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Depending on the driver assigned to it, a Rosemount squad car will travel between 30,000 and 40,000 miles per year. Considering the limited time the squads spend outside the city -- mostly just trips to the Dakota County jail in Hastings -- that is a lot of time spent driving up and down the streets of Rosemount.

Rosemount has a fleet of seven squad cars, each with two officers assigned to it. Over the years the cars have become a sort of rolling office for police officers. With a laptop computer mounted next to the driver's seat and a printer in the armrest, there's not much an officer can do at the police station that he or she can't do in the car.

Each car is set up essentially the same way, but there is a little room for officers to customize the placement of items in the same way they'd decorate an office.

In a lot of ways, the squad car is as much of an office as the officers have. Police chief Gary Kalstabakken said he expects officers to spend at least half of their shift in that car, whether it's doing speed checks or patrolling neighborhoods. Being out in the city makes the officers more likely to see crime as it happens. It also makes them more accessible to Rosemount residents.

Officers typically get a lot of freedom in deciding what kind of enforcement they do, and the choices they make can affect the lifespan of their car. An officer who does a lot of neighborhood patrols or business checks might drive more miles, but they're typically slow miles. An officer who chooses to do stationary speed checks might sit in one spot for a long time, but when he drives he drives fast.

"These cars aren't driven the same as your personal car," Kalstabakken said. "There's a lot of stops and starts."

There's also more rough handling than the family minivan is probably used to. When a squad car needs to get somewhere it usually needs to get there fast. Sometimes that means doing a U-turn through the median on County Road 42 rather than waiting for crossroad.

All that contributes to a relatively short lifespan for squad cars. The department typically replaces squad cars when they hit 100,000 miles. The old ones get sold in an online auction. New squad cars, bought through a statewide purchasing agreement, cost the department $21,000 to $22,000, but Kalstabakken said the equipment installed in each car can more than double their value.

However they're driven, given the amount of time officers spend in them squad cars have to have just about anything an officer could need. More and more, a modern police car is an office and supply closet on wheels. The car's trunk is packed with first aid kit, a rifle, a shotgun that fires less-lethal beanbag rounds and the spikes officers use to stop cars that attempt to flee, among other things. Up front, in addition to the computer, each RPD squad car has a radar unit and a camera. Video from the squad cameras downloads automatically every time the car rolls into the department's garage.

Supporting all of that equipment takes a heavy-duty electrical system, and squad cars have them, along with heavy-duty engines, brakes, transmissions and everything else.

"It's basically like driving an industrial-grade version of a product," Kalstabakken said.

Heavy use

When you put on that many miles -- Kalstabakken said as a department Rosemount officers drive 200,000 miles or more a year -- there are bound to be accidents. Police cars get their share of dings. Sometimes they get more. The department recently lost one squad car that was near the end of its lifespan when an officer failed to yield to another vehicle.

Other accidents are not the officer's fault. One squad car lost a bumper last summer -- and was lucky not to lose more -- when another driver ran a red light. Squad cars also occasionally get rear-ended when officers are conducting traffic stops.

The cars get hard use in other ways as well. From time to time, police have to arrest people. And those people are not always happy to find themselves in the back of a squad car. The department went a long time without losing any rear-door windows to violent people, but after having six or seven windows kicked out in a six-month span Kalstabakken started installing bars in front of the windows. It costs a little more up front, but can save money in the end.

The back seat of a squad car is not built for comfort. Part of that is a necessity -- all that equipment up front takes up a lot of room. But it also helps keep the people back there from moving around too much.

"There's less room to kick and scream," Kalstabakken said.

Rear seats also have to be built for easy cleaning. Older squad cars have vinyl seats instead of the cloth ones up front. The newest squads have hard, molded plastic seats and plugs in the floor that allow easy rinsing.

When you make more than 200 DWI arrests a year, Kalstabakken said, there are bound to be some messes. Mostly that involves people throwing up or wetting their pants. Other times, the mess is even less pleasant.

"We do have those," Kalstabakken said. "More often than people probably think."

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