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Is that really a police car? An electric subcompact joins NC fleet

“I was amazed and shocked at how roomy it was!”

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Charlotte News & Observer via Facebook

By Richard Stradling
The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

RALEIGH, N.C. — In 30 years in law enforcement, State Capitol Police Lt. Edward Farmer has driven an array of big, powerful police cars, including the Ford Crown Victoria, the Chevy Caprice with a Corvette engine, the Chevy Tahoe and the Dodge Charger.

So when Farmer saw his department’s newest car, his first thought was whether his 6-foot-4 frame would fit in it. After all, under the government’s classification system, the Chevy Bolt qualifies as a subcompact car.

“Once I got into it I was amazed and shocked at how roomy is was,” Farmer said. “Not dissing the Charger any, but I actually have a little more room in this car than the Charger, because of the equipment array and the way that’s set up.”

The Bolt’s size is the first thing people notice when they see the diminutive patrol car parked outside the State Capitol or moving around downtown Raleigh.

But when people realize that the car is fully electric, that’s when the questions really come, said Chief Chip Hawley. People mostly want to know how this little electric vehicle works as a police car and how officers feel about riding around in it.

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The department has three Chevy Bolts, but only one is fully dressed up and equipped as a patrol car. It joins the department’s fleet of about 30 marked vehicles, mostly Chargers, that patrol state government property in Wake County.

The car is among the first acquired by the state Department of Public Safety under Gov. Roy Cooper’s Executive Order 80 on climate change. The order, issued in 2018, set a statewide goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 40% statewide from 2005 levels by 2025 and of increasing the use of electric vehicles.

The Department of Public Safety, which includes the State Highway Patrol, has the largest motor fleet in state government, accounting for half of state vehicles, said Douglas Holbrook, the chief financial officer. The department is slowly working in electrics and hybrids, Holbrook said.

“It’s not like we’re just going to be able to electrify,” he said. “We are doing it deliberately as our replacement schedules come up. But we are trying to move further away from full-gas vehicles statewide.”

Holbrook said probation officers and juvenile justice employees would be among the next public safety workers to get electric vehicles, as the number of charging stations increases across the state. The Highway Patrol has no current plans to acquire electric vehicles but will consider doing so in the future, said spokesman Chris Knox.

‘This is the future’

The State Capitol Police provided a good place to start, because officers spend most of their time within two miles of the State Capitol building downtown, close to numerous electric charging stations. And Chief Hawley was enthusiastic about his department adapting to electric vehicles early.

“We’ve got to look into the future. This is the future,” he said. “I’d rather lead than follow.”

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Hawley acknowledges that the Bolt was initially met with skepticism by some of his officers; law enforcement is a profession that prizes being tough and macho, and at first glance the Bolt is neither. Seeing the car for the first time, he says, many officers responded like the dog looking at the phonograph machine in the old RCA commercials.

“They sort of tilt their head like, ‘Well, what is this thing here?’” he said.

But once they get a closer look and actually drive the car, his officers come around. Questions about acceleration are settled quickly, he said.

“Electric cars are pretty quick off the get,” he said. “Anyone who gets in this business, they like a quick car. It’s pretty peppy.”

Now, Hawley says, officers compete to see who gets to drive it.

“Sometimes I’ll pull rank and say, ‘No, Dad’s driving it today,’” he said. “Because I like it.”

Other police departments interested in electrics

The Bolt can go 250 to 300 miles between charges, Hawley said, and is easy to park, an advantage in downtown Raleigh. One downside is that the car doesn’t have a cage or holding area in the backseat, so the department must use a Charger or other vehicle when officers arrest someone.

Electric vehicles cost a bit more than comparable gas-powered cars, said Holbrook, the finance director, but that up-front expense is made up in lower fuel and maintenance costs.

“You don’t have to take it in for an oil change,” he said. “We can keep a car on the road more of the time.”

Hawley says he’s not aware of any other police department in North Carolina that has a Chevy Bolt patrol car. But as a member of the board of the N.C. police chiefs association, he says lots of other chiefs have asked him about it.

The Cary Police Department has had an unmarked Nissan Leaf electric car for a couple of years and recently purchased two Tesla Model Y’s that it will turn into marked patrol cars. Chief Toni Dezomits said the Model Y’s are still out of state being turned into police cars and she doesn’t know yet when they’ll hit the road.

The State Capitol Police sought advice from police departments in other states on how to get the Bolt properly outfitted. But enough departments are embracing the car for law enforcement use that General Motors has now begun offering a police-ready package for the Bolt, to make it easier for departments to add lights and radios.

(c)2021 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)