When Winnetka police Chief Patrick Kreis asked the Village Board to buy a sport utility vehicle for his department, one trustee questioned how officers can safely chase a fleeing offender while behind the wheel of a bulky, gas-guzzling vehicle.
The board approved the $27,000 Ford Police Interceptor SUV after Kreis assured members that most of the department's vehicles will still be sedans.
But in neighboring Glenview, officials have no qualms about phasing out sedans to create a patrol fleet of SUVs. They're following a trend in which police departments nationwide are increasingly opting for SUVs. September 2013 sales of the Ford Police Interceptor SUV are up 119 percent from September 2012, according to Jonathan Honeycutt, fleet brand marketing manager for car, crossover utility vehicle and SUV police vehicles at Ford Motor Co.
Glenview Deputy Chief Stefan Johnson said the new SUVs are better suited to today's police work than sedans. They have room for an officer's tools of the trade — evidence collection kits, computer equipment, road cones and flares. With four-wheel-drive, the SUV is also better than a sedan at navigating icy and snow-covered roads, he added.
Meanwhile, the roomy back seat is safer for the arresting officer — and more comfortable for the offender being transported, Johnson noted.
"If you look at the floor space of a Ford Taurus, imagine trying to get a pretty big guy who's wearing a size 12 shoe in the back of that car — it's just not going to work," said Johnson. "If you try to reach into the back seat of a car to buckle someone's seat belt, he could bite your ear off."
"In some European countries, all you see is police driving SUVs," said Roy Lucke, director of the transportation safety programs at the Northwestern University Center for Public Safety.
Since police departments increasingly frown upon pursuits because of the danger they pose, the need for a sedan that performs well during a high-speed chase is no longer a priority, Lucke said.
"I'm seeing that the only downside to this trend is the SUVs can be a little more expensive than sedans," Lucke said.
"The SUV is a much sexier, more macho car for police officers to drive, but it costs more and it certainly is not showing that the departments are going green," said Leonard Cavise, professor of law at DePaul University.
"I don't believe that the motivation for police driving SUVs is they want to increase the comfort of the prisoner," he added. "The officers like driving them, but we're also seeing more people drive SUVs across the country, not just the police departments."
Johnson said that of Glenview's fleet of 18 patrol vehicles, only two are SUVs. But officials hope to purchase primarily SUVs to replace aging sedans.
"There is also a certain level of service expected in Glenview — even for an offender, who we don't want to put in danger by crowding him into the back seat of a car," Johnson said.
Northbrook Police Chief Charles Wernick said the department added more SUVs to its fleet after the 2011 blizzard.
"Getting around was absolutely impossible," Wernick recalled of the treacherous road conditions.
Northbrook's fleet has seven SUVs out of 35 vehicles, Wernick said.
"Having them available when we get hit with a snowstorm makes all the difference in the world," Wernick said.
But Wernick said the new SUVs don't necessarily have much more space than the traditional police sedans.
"There is still a lot of equipment, no matter where you put it," he said.
In Highland Park, the Police Department isn't necessarily moving toward SUVs to replace its cruisers, but it is recognizing their benefits, said Deputy Chief George Pfutzenreuter.
Last year, the Highland Park Police Department bought two Ford Explorers for $52,200, Pfutzenreuter said. Two Dodge Chargers — the police cruiser of choice in Highland Park — were bought for $45,750.
Those purchases were to replace aging cars in the fleet, he said, bringing the total to three SUVs and 15 Chargers. SUVs offer extra space for transporting equipment and handle better in bad weather, he said. But departments also have to be mindful of how they're spending taxpayer dollars.
"Trends happen," Pfutzenreuter said. "If the SUVs continue to get better gas mileage and improve in cost, you're probably going to see more and more of them come up, if they can serve the same needs."
Tribune reporters Gregory Trotter and Alexandra Chachkevitch contributed.