Killing a take-home car policy could add to KPD response times

Kaua‘i Police Department is facing another potential blow as the county takes a hard look at whether to continue its vehicle take-home program.

Though the county hasn’t yet officially revoked the privilege, which allows police to take home their squad cars at the end of their shifts, Mayor Bryan Baptiste, the County Attorney’s Office and Budget Finance Director Wallace Rezentes Jr. have taken the policy under review.

“We queried all departments and will be reviewing the policy and analyzing it,” said Mary Daubert, county spokeswoman. The review will extend to all county employees outfitted with cars, she added.

From there, the county administration will determine whether to kill it or keep it alive, she said. That decision, however, has no timeline.

“As long as it takes,” Daubert said.

Arguments against the vehicle take-home policy stem from litigation, specifically, liability on behalf of the county while an officer is driving to and from work, and a class action suit filed against the county by officers who wanted compensation for overtime pay related to the upkeep of the county-provided vehicles.

In April 2002, several officers, including Stanley Kua, Paul Applegate, Robert Gausepohl, Joseph Kaauwai, Irvil Kapua, Karen Kapua, Eric Kaui, Jerald Kim, Stanton Koizumi, and Stanley Kua Jr., filed the suit under the Fair Labor Standards Act. In the suit, the plaintiffs asked the county to compensate them for unpaid overtime, unspecified damages and legal fees. The case was settled for an undisclosed amount April 27, 2006.

In light of the suit, police and other county employees might have to surrender their cars.

That has police department heads concerned, as the program has not only been a fringe benefit for officers, but has helped the community as well, Assistant Chief Roy Asher said.

“All officers are first responders and they could, at any time, be tasked into service,” he said. “If they take the car program away, officers that are called out will have to first come to the station to pick up their car. That’s not efficient at all.”

The already-strapped KPD, which has 24 open positions, can have as few as two officers at once working together on large sections of the island.

As it stands now, officers on another call in their beats — which can encompass as many as 25 miles — can rely on another officer to be dispatched from his or her home if that officer is closer to the emergency than they are.

Asher said while he can relate from an administrative standpoint to the severity of liability risk, he also can identify with how this could take a toll on his officers.

“I can see their rationale, but being an officer, I think it’s going to hurt morale and be a disservice to the community,” he said.

Police Commissioner Carol Furtado agreed.

“I think that by taking away the vehicle-take home program, it will have a definite effect on officers — their morales, their response time,” she said.

Voicing concern about diminishing police presence, Furtado said the decision to end the program could detract from public safety.

“I think one of the official reasons for the program was community policing — you’d see a police car in your neighborhood.

“Also, In cases of a hurricane, tsunami or flood, officers have in their cars emergency equipment which they can use if they’re on the other side when the Hanalei bridge is out or the Hanapepe River overflows.”

Lobbying to preemptively resolve the matter, Bryson Ponce, Kaua‘i chapter union chair for the police, said if a moratorium on the car program is put into action, he’s got a backup plan: Subsidized cars.

The program is already in effect on the Big Island and O‘ahu, he said.

Under the plan, officers would be given a stipend to buy a car to use for work. An upshot to that is the car could also be driven for personal use, Ponce said.

“The car would be registered in (the officer’s) car,” he said.

Should an officer lose his job, he or she could keep the car, but “would have to pay for it,” he said.

The cars are unmarked, but would be equipped with lights and a siren.

Ponce said he hasn’t explored the risk of police impersonators, but said that type of crime hasn’t been an issue for the other islands that have had the program in place for 15 years so far.

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