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An arresting glimpse of police cruisers past


When it's rolling down U.S. 40 among sleek sports cars and sport utility vehicles, nothing turns more heads than Sgt. Tim Black's black-and-white '57 Chevy dressed up like a Howard County police car.

"If people saw me driving that thing, they'd think I was in some sort of a time warp," joked Lt. Bill Pollack, a 31-year veteran of the Howard County Police Department.

The historic car - one of the first models used by the Howard County police - will be displayed at the department's 50th anniversary events this year. The car is a visual representation of how much policing has changed since 1952.

Old-fashioned as the police car looks, the most important patrolling improvements wouldn't be apparent unless Black tried to make a traffic stop while driving it.

The 1957 Chevrolet does not have strategically placed reflective strips or a state-of-the art light bar and siren system. It doesn't have a specially designed engine cooling mechanism, larger-than-average brakes or heavier-than-average suspension.

Maybe that's why a modern patrol car costs about $25,000, compared with the '57 model's price tag of about $1,000.

When a driver is pulled over today in Howard County, the all-white police-package Ford Crown Victoria in the rear-view mirror is fully equipped with those features and dozens of others designed to make policing more efficient.

"It's pretty much a one-person police department in there," said Pollack, who oversees the fleet of 324 Howard police vehicles.

Even more mundane features, such as air conditioning, and automatic windows and door locks - none of which can be found in a '57 Chevrolet - help patrol officers on the job, Pollack said.

Some of the gadgets on board are much more high-tech.

Almost every car is equipped with a $7,100 laptop computer capable of running extensive background checks.

The laptop can withstand a 3-foot drop, has thermal protection and is highly water-resistant, said Pfc. Mark Hart, the department's mobile data coordinator.

'Where's the computer?'

The high-tech passengers haven't been warmly received by everyone in the department.

"Some officers think it just gets in the way. They don't want anything else in their car," Hart said. "But the new people are like, 'Where's the computer?' as soon as they become officers."

Police at both ends of the spectrum use the computers, and no one is dead-set against them, Hart said.

Officers can run computer checks on licenses, boats, guns, other property and people without burdening the radio system. They also can send instant messages to each other and write police reports, which, within weeks, they will be able to transmit electronically, Hart said.

The department has about 200 computers, half of which are laptops. The first computers installed in Howard police cars about four years ago were mounted in the cars, Hart said, but those are being phased out in favor of the portable version.

"The equipment in cars has expanded what police can do," Hart said. "It's made us streamlined and more effective."

When the department began with one 1951 Ford back in 1952, the patrol car and the patrol officer's job were more basic, Pollack said.

"It used to be that you just relied on common sense and in- stincts to do the job," he said. Pollack's first squad car was a 1971 Ford LTD - the ancestor of the Crown Victoria, he said.

Turnover rate

Like all police departments, Howard County frequently changes its vehicle fleet. Typically a car is taken out of the fleet after it has traveled about 90,000 miles and is about 5 years old, Pollack said.

Years ago, police cars were retired more rapidly. The department's two 1957 Chevrolets, for example, were in the fleet for one year, Black said.

"The cars were used 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Black said. "When one officer got off work, the next hopped right in the car and kept driving."

In those days, the patrol cars were painted black-and-white and had one bright-red siren mounted on top.

Black refurbished his father's silver '57 Chevrolet about two years ago and transformed it into an exact replica of the early Howard County police cars. He owns the car and stores it in a barn at his Pennsylvania home.

There, two young officers - his sons, ages 3 and 4 - watch over it. "I put old police hats on them, and we work on the car together," he said.

Black has taken the car out of storage about two dozen times since August 2000, and it has collected nine trophies.

Howard County residents will be able to admire it up close on Law Enforcement Celebration Day, which will take place June 1 at the Columbia lakefront.

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