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An officer's office: How cars are a driving force behind police work

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Moorhead Police Patrol Sgt. Clint Stephenson calls his car his "office" while giving a tour of it Wednesday, April 19, 2017 at the Moorhead (Minn.) Police Station. Chris Flynn / Forum News Service2 / 5
The front seat of an officer's patrol car generally has a computer, controls for the lights and siren, and controls for a radar gun. An officer may spend upwards of 6-8 hours of a patrol shift in their car. Chris Flynn / Forum News Service3 / 5
Moorhead Police Patrol Sgt. Clint Stephenson points out features in the front seat of his Ford Setina patrol vehicle Wednesday, April 19, 2017 at the Moorhead (Minn.) Police Station. Chris Flynn / Forum News Service4 / 5
A police officer may carry a large amount of gear in their car, including stop sticks, a medical kit, a hooligan tool and a ballistic vest and helmet. Chris Flynn / Forum News Service5 / 5

FARGO — When most of us imagine a police car, we might think of a Hollywood car chase, or a worrisome situation down the street, or the anxiety of seeing one in our rearview mirror.

But it's much simpler for police. For an officer, it's their office.

Yes, it's an office that carries stop strips and something called "a hooligan tool." It's an office with a siren that sometimes has to go exceptionally fast or contain a particular individual in the back seat. But it's also just as likely to be the place where an officer eats lunch.

Fargo Deputy Chief Joseph Anderson estimates that an officer spends roughly 75 percent to 80 percent of their shift in their cars. That could be 6-8 hours a day. After all that time spent in their cars, officers get a bit attached to them, says patrol Sgt. Clint Stephenson of the Moorhead Police Department, but not in a sentimental way. It's more of a practical thing.

"It's hard to jump into someone else's car," he says, because another officer might not have it set up quite the same way.


In addition to the long hours and lunches, police cars also bear the hallmarks of the specific needs of police.

There are the lights and sirens, of course, as well as a radar gun (which faces both to the front and to the rear) and an onboard computer for running license plates or filling out reports, Stephenson says. There are cameras that record all the activity in the car and a beefed-up alternator and battery to help power it all.

The more extreme aspects of police activity become more apparent as you move back in the vehicle. Stephenson's car has thick plexiglass separating the front seat from the back to protect officers from potentially violent arrestees in the back seat, as well as bars on the back windows to prevent them from getting broken. The back doors can't be opened from the inside.

The contents of trunk, too, tell you this isn't your everyday office. Stephenson carries a medical kit, a battering ram, a bolt cutter and that hooligan tool, which can be used to pry or break through many types of barriers, including car doors and windows.

In addition, Stephenson carries a ballistic vest and helmet as well as an active shooter kit, which includes a long gun and extra ammunition.

A conversation starter

Police cars need to be visible, an aspect of police work that Stephenson has gotten used to in his 20 years as an officer. When he rolls into a neighborhood, he isn't bothered that he is likely to become the center of attention. In fact, he welcomes it.

"We might come into a neighborhood, and the kids like to come over and we'll turn on the lights for them," he says. The adults end up coming over, too, and will ask questions. Then, he says, they might share a concern about something happening in their neighborhood.

"That's part of being a police officer," he says. "The cars attract attention, and that's an easy way to start a conversation."

Cops and their cars

What kind of cars do police officers driver?

Stephenson drives a Ford Setina, a line of Ford vehicles sold to law enforcement agencies across the country. His has a V6 engine, which is standard, although some come with larger engines. Another model, the Ford Interceptor, is also widely used.

How much do they cost?

Anderson says the Fargo's police cruisers vary from $33,000 to $38,000 and are purchased through North Dakota's state procurement contract. An additional $25,000 in equipment and electronics is needed to make a squad car ready for service.

How many cars are in the fleet?

Anderson says Fargo's fleet of vehicles breaks down like this: 46 marked squad vehicles, five community service officer vehicles, three motorcycles, four field services support vehicles, 34 unmarked detective vehicles and five administrative vehicles.

Moorhead's fleet breaks down like this, according to Lt. Tory Jacobson: 25 marked squad vehicles, three community service officer vehicles, 10 detective vehicles, five for support services (parking enforcement, police volunteers and youth services) and three administrative vehicles.

How fast do they go?

Stephenson says the cars could possibly top out at 130 mph, though the light bar and extra weight slow them down.

Why are police cars left running?

If an officer has to exit their vehicle for any reason, they'll likely leave it running. That's done, Stephenson says, so the officer won't have to reboot the on-board electronics, which may take up to 10 minutes. Cars are also left running for the benefit of K-9 officers, who remain in their car for most of an officer's shift.

How many miles are put on in a given year?

Anderson estimates that, on average, a squad car puts on 25,000 to 30,000 miles per year.

How long are they used?

Anderson and Stephenson say cars are generally used for about 100,000 to 120,000 miles. Stephenson says that the cars endure a lot of stop-and-go driving and lose their effectiveness and reliability.

How are officers trained to use their vehicles?

An officer's academy training includes 40 hours of classroom and behind-the-wheel training, Stephenson says. Officers also receive eight hours of EVOC (emergency vehicle operator course) training every three years. This includes four hours of behind-the-wheel training, including high-speed maneuvering.

How are vehicles assigned?

Officers are assigned a car that they use on a semi-permanent basis. They'll generally share their car with another officer who will use it when the other officer isn't working. If an officer doesn't have to share their car they're generally allowed to drive them home, Stephenson says.

How are they maintained?

Officers are responsible for bringing cars in for maintenance when needed. They'll generally take them to local repair shops.