The practice itself is not new, but the cities of Bingen and White Salmon now have an official policy in place regarding police officers taking their police cars home.
According to representatives from the Bingen-White Salmon Joint Police Committee, adoption of the new policy was geared to meet Internal Revenue Service directives.
"The IRS requires an entity to have a written, formally adopted policy with regards to take-home vehicles," explained Leana Johnson, a member of the Bingen-White Salmon Joint Police Committee as well as a White Salmon City Councilor.
"The IRS has a policy about vehicles and we want to make sure our officers and the city are covered," added Bingen City Councilor and committee member Betty Barnes.
With that edict in the background, the respective city councils devoted part of their regular meetings last week to decide whether they wanted officers serving on the Bingen-White Salmon Police Department to be allowed to take their police cars home with them after their patrol shifts ended for the day.
In early February, the Police Committee settled on a "personally assigned vehicle" policy, and brought it before both the Bingen City Council and the White Salmon City Council.
"We put a lot of time and effort into this -- quite a few meetings. This was the practice when Ned Kindler was police chief," Barnes said.
"All officers have vehicles. It's a practice that has been happening," explained Bingen council member Sandi Dickey. "This policy outlines the conditions that come with the car."
Last week, after a bit of debate about the policy, both councils overwhelmingly supported allowing officers to take their cars home.
On Feb. 3, the Bingen City Council voted 4-0 to support the new vehicle policy. The next evening, the White Salmon City Council voted 4-1 to ratify the same policy.
"We believe this policy is essential to retaining and attracting officers to the Bingen-White Salmon Police Department," Bingen Mayor Brian Prigel explained.
In a report to the Joint Police Committee, Police Chief Bruce Brending outlined three key reasons why the take-home policy is a smart one for the cities of Bingen and White Salmon:
1) Public safety is substantially increased as it allows an officer who is called out to proceed directly to the location of an incident.
"It is not in the public's best interest to have an officer have to drive by the situation to go to the office to pick up a patrol vehicle, and then drive back to the location," Brending explained.
2) Officers tend to take better care of a vehicle that is assigned to them versus sharing a common car with several officers. Problems with the car are detected earlier, preventing minor problems from becoming major expenses. Thus, the vehicles last longer, enabling the city to have to replace vehicles less frequently.
3) The policy helps the community attract and keep qualified police officers.
"Having the ability to allow officers to take vehicles home is a valuable recruitment and retention mechanism," Brending pointed out.
Barnes attended White Salmon's Feb. 4 meeting and made a presentation in support of the new policy.
White Salmon City Council member Mark Peppel at first questioned the take-home approach.
"In the outside world, it's considered a fringe benefit to have a personal vehicle," he said.
"When it comes to emergency vehicle response, being able to respond swiftly is not a fringe benefit," Barnes responded. "In times when the economy is bad, the last thing you want to do is lose any police officers. When the economy is bad, crimes rise. We don't want to risk losing even one officer."
Barnes said taking policemen's vehicles away could lead to the loss of some officers.
"If we have even one officer quitting over this, it costs $92,400 to replace him," Barnes explained. "It costs only $21,000 to allow the car policy. And the cost would be $277,200 if we lose three officers."
"If this policy is not adopted, are three officers threatening to quit?" asked White Salmon council member Richard Marx.
"It's not a threat. It's a reality," Barnes replied.
Barnes noted that the personally assigned vehicle policy is an important drawing card when it comes to hiring top quality police officers.
"There is no doubt in my mind -- we are getting more applicants and better applicants. I don't think we want to do away with that. I prefer we be a desired place to work," Barnes added.
Bingen City Council member Clinton Bryan asked if the personal vehicle policy has been mentioned by new officers coming to work for the Bingen-White Salmon Police Department.
"Has this ever been an issue with new hires?" questioned Bryan.
"No one comes in and says they wouldn't take the job because the personal vehicle is not available, but I can't imagine it wouldn't be a drawing card," Barnes responded.
Brending pointed out that the policy does not require the purchase of any new vehicles.
White Salmon council member Bob Landgren said he believed adopting the personally assigned vehicle policy made good sense.
"We have never had a policy to protect the chief and the officers. This will do that," said Landgren. "This policy protects everybody, and it's required by the IRS.
We're not the only city doing this. All cities offer this to their officers, and we want to retain our officers."
In White Salmon, the motion to allow officers to take their vehicles home was adopted with a 4-1 vote, with Richard Marx the sole dissenting vote against the policy.
"The key issue for me is response time," said Bingen council member Bryan. "If someone has to go by a scene to get a vehicle and then come back, that's no good."