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Sirened Screamers

The black and white police car of the USA has served the population well. We take a look.

Words and pics by Gautam Sharma

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Car-chase films. We just can't get enough of them. And this is perhaps why Hollywood has contributed more than its fair share to the genre. The spectacular celluloid chases occasionally see the long arm of the law come out on top - anyone seen Bullitt or CHiPs? - while at other times the baddies (albeit lovable ones) prevail, as in Smokey and the Bandit, Blues Brothers, or the Dukes of Hazzard.

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We, the viewers, are only too happy to perch on the edge of our seats and watch in fascination as the 'black-and-whites' (patrol cars) are subjected to tyre-squealing, fender-crunching antics by gung-ho officers.

But we all know that Hollywood is slightly prone to hype and exaggeration, don't we? So what sort of treatment to real police cars endure? You guessed it. They spend the vast majority of their time on routine patrols - which is not to say they're never driven in anger. But don't ever expect to read about extended chases in which 50 or more cars are totalled (as in The Blues Brothers), because it doesn't happen. Police guidelines in the US (and in Australia) dictate that pursuits should be terminated if it looks as though innocent bystanders might be put at too great a risk.

Nevertheless, anyone who's seen shows such as World's Wildest Police Chases would know that even real-world cop cars are sometimes involved in spectacular chase sequences. This being the case, we thought you might want to know what goes into a modern-day US patrol car and what makes a black-and-white different from its showroom equivalent. Autospeed recently requested the Stanford Department of Public Safety to allow us to have a close look at a couple of their patrol cars. They agreed, so we can now show you.

Stanford, for those of you who don't know, is one of America's premier universities, located within 50km of the picturesque city of San Francisco. Trivia buffs will be interested to know it is the second-largest university campus in the world (covering in excess of 8000 acres). In fact, it's eclipsed in area only by Moscow's university - bet you didn't know that. The vast scale of Stanford means it has its own police and fire departments, as well as its own golf course and shopping mall. But enough of the trivia - let's get back to the cars.

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Stanford Department of Public Safety's fleet manager, Terry Bella, said the Chevy Impalas and Ford Crown Victorias used by the Stanford force are ordered as 'Police Packs' from their respective factories and then customised on-site. The University's force was one of the first law enforcement fleets in California's Bay area to trial the Impala (New York City and Las Vegas also have Impalas on their police fleets).

The born-again Impala (which made its debut last year) is a lot smaller than its ancestors - almost a mid-size car by American standards. It certainly looks small when parked next to a Ford Crown Victoria. The compact dimensions has proved to be one of the Impala's bugbears as beefy American officers find the car a bit cramped - particularly so as they have a host of paraphernalia attached to their person (nightstick, sidearm, etc).

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The Police Pack-equipped Impalas come with wider tyres, stiffer suspension with heavy-duty shocks, high-output alternator, larger battery, uprated engine calibration and a transmission cooler (they're all autos). They also get a special wiring package for aftermarket equipment - 'special power distribution points' is the official term. "They leave wires exposed so you don't have to dig into the system," Bella explained.

Other features unique to the cop cars are a calibrated speedo, slightly different bucket seats, a switch on the dash to control the swivelling external lights and indicators/turn signals that are set up as strobes. In addition, GM offers a 'surveillance mode' that kills the dash lights, brake lights and daytime running lights - just the thing for snooping around in stealth. It enables officers to "go in real quiet and look around," Bella says.

Stanford's force fits all the police-specific gear on site, which has certain advantages. "The fleet is now uniform," Bella said. "All switches and controls are in same place, whereas it previously differed from one car to the next." Forces that don't have the facility to tailor their vehicles to their needs can order a turnkey car from Kerr Engineering (based in Ontario, Canada).

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The most obvious bits that distinguish the police car from its standard sibling - apart from the livery - is the roof-mounted light bar (which costs from $US900 upwards) and the Unitrol Touchmaster - a module that controls the lights, siren, PA, air horn and overhead-mounted shotgun release.

There is also an eyewitness video camera that can be switched on manually or trigger automatically when the flashing lights are activated. Apart from being usable as evidence, footage from these cameras has provided entertaining material for TV shows such as World's Wildest Police Chases.

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The footage is date-stamped (it also records the time and vehicle number) and cannot be erased. The VHS tapes are housed in a vault in the boot (that's trunk, for US readers) and the sergeant or watch commander changes the tapes after every shift. Recording equipment includes a wireless microphone attached to the officer that can be switched on when he steps out of the car. These recordings can also be used as evidence.

The rear seat is literally a single piece of moulded plastic (strong and easy to clean), and it must be said it's more comfortable than it looks. The rear door is devoid of latches and window winders - and there's a reason for this. "We've had prisoners literally rip door panels out in the past," Bella explains.

What if a captive suddenly decides to have a heart attack? No problem, the patrol cars are equipped with portable AED defibrillators. One of the other trick features is a tilt tabletop next to the driver's seat that pops up and articulates. It's designed for laptops to enable report writing in the field.

As for the cars themselves, Bella says the V6 Impala is quicker than the V8-powered Ford Crown Victoria. It also "handles pretty good," according to Bella. "I like the way it pulls you around corners. It's very manoeuvrable."

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Australian motorists who've owned a Holden Commodore will be familiar with the Impala's 3.8-litre engine as it's essentially the same unit that has powered the Aussie icon since 1988. The biggest difference is the fact that it's mounted east-west in the Impala and drives the front wheels, while the Commodore is rear-driven.

The Impalas have been on trial by various forces for over a year now and the general consensus among officers is that the Ford Crown Victoria is preferable - due mainly to its spaciousness. There's also the fact that the angle of the Impala's A-pillar means visibility is impaired by the pillar-mounted surveillance lights.

The Ford Crown Victoria is a stalwart of police fleets and, although it's a completely different car to the Impala, the police versions are set up in a similar way in terms of equipment and switchgear. Bella says it's much easier to get into the Crown Vic's electrical system than it is with the Impala.

Like the Impala, the Police pack-equipped Crown Victoria comes with chunkier tyres and rims, stiffer suspension and a recalibrated 4.6-litre V8 - similar to the unit that powers the Mustang.

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So much for the cars, what about the drivers? Well, they're all trained for the job and the Stanford officers make a pilgrimage to nearby Moffet airfield once a year for training. There they tackle a high-speed road pursuit course and also practice stop-and-turn manoeuvres and backing up in blind spots.

And what happens to the vehicles once they reach 90,000-100,000 miles? Simple. They're returned to normal configuration and sold. So it's fair to say old cop cars never die - they just take up plain-clothes duty!

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