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The SUV-ification of Police Fleets

When an incoming order of 600 Ford Explorers hits the streets, the NYPD’s fleet will be majority SUV. Photo: John Nacion/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The NYPD is on its way to becoming an all-SUV fleet. Announcing the news at the end of September, deputy commissioner Robert Martinez called the transition one of necessity and strategy: Ford — which has an $11.5 million, five-year contract with the department — has stopped making the “interceptor” sedans NYPD has used for years. Their replacement, a hybrid Ford Explorer SUV, will act as a placeholder until the city can take the 6,300-vehicle fleet fully electric with the Ford Mustang Mach-E — a small SUV that’s more like a station wagon. (The city bought 185 Mach-Es last December, but has been buying hundreds of Explorers every year.) The Explorer, technically the Ford Police Interceptor Utility Hybrid, with its larger profile and considerable height, is better suited to the job than the traditional sedan, Martinez told the New York Daily News. It “meets the mission,” he said, and is “safe for everybody.”

New York isn’t alone in the SUV-ification of its police fleet. Since 2017, more than half of all police vehicles sold in the U.S. are cop-customized Explorers. The country’s next-largest department, Chicago, has jumped on the oversize bandwagon, with Ford relocating the factory to the city to build the police Explorers right there at home. Across the U.S., police departments large and small are retiring their last Crown Victorias in favor of new, often gargantuan, SUVs. An annual report by the Michigan State Police Precision Driving Unit, which tests new-model law-enforcement vehicles, tracks the trend: In 2010, two out of eight vehicles tested were SUVs, while in 2022, nine out of eleven vehicles tested were SUVs. Ford, which has contracts for more than half of the police vehicles in the country, doesn’t even make sedans anymore, meaning departments across the U.S. are all, at some point, destined for the same thing: bigger, faster cars.

Over the last ten years, as SUVs and trucks came to make up 80 percent of total new car sales in the country, pedestrian fatalities have increased dramatically, hitting the highest level in four decades. Nationwide, police car chases now kill more people than tornadoes, lightning, and hurricanes combined. As those trends converge in the form of larger police vehicles — which are legally allowed to exceed the speed limit and perform other vehicular stunts civilians can’t — it presents a unique danger, says Alex Vitale, sociology professor at Brooklyn College and author of The End of Policing. “The research shows high-speed chases and maneuvering into vehicles endangers police officers, endangers people who are only wanted for traffic violations, and endangers random members of the public, especially in New York City where the density of pedestrians is so high.”

What Vitale is describing — using the police vehicle itself as a weapon — is what’s called a “PIT maneuver,” or “precision immobilization technique”: The officer behind the wheel uses the front end of their vehicle to stop a speeding car by ramming it sideways, known as “pitting.” Police deploying PIT maneuvers have killed 30 people from 2016 to 2020. In 2020, a pregnant woman sued Arkansas State Patrol after her vehicle was overturned by a trooper’s PIT maneuver during a basic traffic stop for speeding. In 2021, a 12-year-old boy was killed after a Georgia state trooper pitted the SUV he was riding in, flipping the vehicle. In 2019, an NYPD officer driving an SUV tried a similar technique on a cyclist who the officer claimed was riding “recklessly.” After ordering the cyclist to stop, the officer rammed the SUV into the cyclist so hard the Citi Bike got wedged in the wheel well. “You’re refusing to stop after multiple lawful orders that you acknowledged,” the officer says to the cyclist in a video recorded at the scene. “So I am going to use whatever means necessary to stop you, okay? And that’s for your safety.”

But these SUVs can be dangerous just driving down the road. In 2019 the Indianapolis television station WHTR lined up preschool-age kids in front of various SUV models to illustrate the dangerous blind spots — a person in the driver’s seat of a Cadillac Escalade was only able to see the head of the 13th kid. Despite pandemic-era driver behaviors like speeding contributing to an uptick in traffic fatalities, the overall correlation between vehicle type and pedestrian deaths is irrefutable. And now car manufacturers are building even larger vehicles specifically designed for law enforcement. Ford’s Expedition XL Max SSV is basically a supersize Explorer, while GM is making the gargantuan Chevy Tahoe PPV. Both of these vehicles have such gaping front blind spots that it would be difficult to see a pedestrian or cyclist over the dashboard.

The federal push for departments to go electric is providing another opportunity to go big. Ford announced the Mustang Mach-E SUV as part of its effort to develop “all-electric, purpose-built law enforcement vehicles.” One of these vehicles, the Ford F-150 Lightning Pro SSV, is even heavier than Ford’s SUVs precisely because it’s an EV — batteries weigh more than gas tanks — and it’s fast, too, going zero to 60 miles per hour in four seconds. Ford thinks this is the way forward — as the release reads: “The F-150 Lightning Pro Special Service Vehicle marks the next step in our efforts to serve law enforcement into an electric future” — all but guaranteeing a country of police vehicles that are larger, heavier, and infinitely deadlier. The justifications for their necessity — much like police justifications for purchasing mine-resistant armored tanks — are dubious, at best. (According to Ford, the average police cruiser spends 61 percent of its time idling.)

Police say their vehicles must be larger and more powerful to pursue criminals who have vehicles that are also larger and more powerful. “Before, police were meant to deter or prevent crime, now there’s this sense of rapid response — they come to you,” says Jeffrey Lamson, a doctoral student at Northeastern University studying the history of police vehicles. “Even the very notion that police should be engaging in a high-speed pursuit is a newer concept.”

As law enforcement departments size up, other municipal fleets are switching to smaller and safer vehicles more appropriate for city streets. The trend, known as “right-sizing,” is happening all over the country, from fire engines to delivery trucks — everything except police vehicles. That’s because police have been “sold and told” that their big car is essential to their safety, says Lamson. “When you give police a tool or technology, and especially when you sell it to them for their safety, taking it away is almost impossible due to the power of police unions and the way they take control of city budgets.” But there is some precedent for scaling down in New York City. In 2016, the NYPD made headlines with a new addition to its fleet, the tiny two-seat Smart ForTwos. The “right to remain adorable” cars are still deployed around the city. At the time, NYPD officials, including Martinez, said these vehicles, which cost about $26,000, were “safer, cheaper, and easier to operate.” (Smart ForTwos aren’t made in the U.S. anymore, but the Chevy Bolt makes a tiny-cop-car equivalent). How many basic law enforcement tasks could as easily be accomplished on bikes, motorcycles, and scooters? What would happen if the city with the largest municipal fleet — New York manages 30,000 vehicles in total — used its purchasing power to push automakers to design for efficiency, utility, and accountability, instead of sheer brute force?

The Cop Car Has Become the Cop SUV