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When they are not patrolling the streets and nabbing speeders, hundreds of Baltimore-area police officers are allowed to use their cruisers to pick up groceries, run family errands or shuttle relatives around.

Such programs cost taxpayers — but no one knows how much.

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While it's common for some police departments to let officers commute to and from work in the cars, Anne Arundel, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties and the Maryland State Police allow more than 1,200 officers to use their cruisers as family vehicles when they are not on duty.

The long-standing programs come with a trade off. Officers who use the cars must carry their weapons and respond to serious calls near their location. And that can lead to tragedy: On Saturday, an off-duty Prince George's County officer was killed in a crash while trying to make a traffic stop; a female passenger in the car was injured.

Police departments differ on what officers should do with passengers in such situations. Howard County officers who are with family when they respond to a call, for instance, are required to let all passengers out so another officer can pick them up.

Officials don't know how much taxpayers spend on fuel, maintenance and the other costs of allowing officers to keep and drive cruisers 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The departments don't track the miles their officers drive while off-duty.

Proponents say marked police cars, whether on the road or parked in neighborhoods, help deter crime. And letting officers keep them while off-duty, they say, gives departments more options for responding to serious calls. Supporters also say vehicles require fewer repairs when they are assigned to a single officer, instead of being used around the clock by several.

Carl Brooks, a captain with the Harford County Sheriff's Office, called the take-home program a "force multiplier" because it puts cars in the community, not at headquarters. "This makes the public safer in the long run as deputies are able to more quickly respond to their needs," he said.

But critics question whether the programs benefit taxpayers. Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, director of the watchdog group Common Cause Maryland, says officers are unlikely to live in the neighborhoods where police attention is needed most.

"It's an issue that is crying out for serious review," she said. "It raises lots of red flags."

The Baltimore Sun reviewed department policies after reporting on the four-year court battle of an Anne Arundel County man. He was stopped in 2010 by an off-duty officer who was transporting his two small children in an unmarked SUV.

More than 450 of the nearly 700 police officers in Anne Arundel County have take-home cars. A county councilman described the program as a perk for underpaid officers, whose starting pay is $44,000.

"They put their lives in harm's way," Councilman John Grasso said. "They're dealing with idiots all day long" and "nasty, arrogant people. You can't pay the police enough."

Two of the largest police departments in the region — in Baltimore and Baltimore County — have the fewest take-home vehicles in the area.

Baltimore has about 2,800 officers and 133 take-home cars. The vehicles are reserved for high-ranking officials and officers with certain specialties. They are not supposed to use the cars for personal business.

Baltimore County has about 1,900 officers and 103 take-home cars. Off-duty officers who are on call may use the cars on personal business so they can respond when called.

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Christopher B. Summers, president of the conservative Maryland Public Policy Institute, called take-home cars "a nice luxury" for the officers. He said he doubts that empty police cars in driveways deter criminals from breaking into homes or committing other misdeeds.

Summers said local governments should tabulate the costs of the programs to determine whether taxpayers benefit. But first, he said, a culture must exist in which police departments want to know the results.

"It's all about transparency and good government," he said.

Police officers and experts say traffic stops are among the most dangerous parts of the job.

The Prince George's County officer who died Saturday, Brennan Rabain, activated his lights and siren to make the traffic stop, said a police spokesman, and was operating within department policy.

Around 3:30 a.m., his cruiser left the roadway and struck a fence. Rabain, 26, was pronounced dead at the scene on Greenbelt Road in Lanham. The passenger, whom police did not identify, suffered minor injuries. Detectives are investigating the crash and trying to learn about the vehicle Rabain was pursuing.

Bevan-Dangel, of Common Cause, says take-home cars could create problems for officers who are called to respond to incidents when they are driving with relatives.

"It puts them in a unfair position," she said. "That is not good for anybody."

Doug Ward, director of the Johns Hopkins University's Division of Public Safety Leadership, says officers must make quick decisions on whether to enforce the law with relatives in car.

The former state trooper said injuries are "an extremely rare occurrence." He compared relatives in the car to reporters or others who ride along to see how law enforcement operates.

Ward said it's fair to ask whether taxpayers should pay the cost of fuel for officers to shop for groceries or to go to softball practice.

"It's an interesting issue," Ward said. "It's a legitimate public-policy question."

The department plans to review the policy of allowing passengers to ride in cruisers when officers are off duty, a spokesman said Sunday.

The Anne Arundel County Police Department spends about $2.3 million annually on fuel for cars.

In the 2010 traffic stop that led to a federal lawsuit alleging false arrest, the off-duty Anne Arundel officer was taking his children from a doctor's appointment.

The county's take-home policy states that "off-duty officers are not expected to be strict enforcers of traffic violations. However, they may not ignore flagrant traffic law violations."

Grasso, the councilman, said officers know the danger of driving relatives in police cruisers, and "it's on them" if injuries occur.

"What's he going to do, sue his employer?" Grasso asked.

But Amy Lanham, the county's safety and insurance manager, said the county could be responsible for damages if a passenger or relative was injured and the officer was found liable.

Anne Arundel police Lt. T.J. Smith, the department spokesman, defended the program.

He said officers are careful with relatives in the car. The department has given officers yellow armbands to wear when off-duty so they can be recognized by on-duty officers, he added.

Smith stressed that it's common for off-duty officers to arrive first at robberies, shootings and other dangerous calls.

"The benefits far outweigh the cons," he said.

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Summers, of the Maryland Public Policy Institute, said the take-home programs "warrant attention," given that police departments can determine their cost, but don't.

"That is troubling," he said. "The officers are using government property at the taxpayers' expense. Police officers are not on duty 24 hours a day."

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Take-home policies

Here are some guidelines and restrictions for police departments that have programs for take-home vehicles: Baltimore and Baltimore County do not have extensive take-home programs.

Anne Arundel County: An officer must live in the county to get a take-home vehicle, and may not take it outside the county. Passengers may include immediate family, as well as grandparents and in-laws.

Carroll County: Sheriff's deputies must live in the county to get a take-home vehicle. Deputies must leave passengers at a safe location when responding to an emergency.

Harford County: A sheriff's deputy must have 18 months of service before getting a take-home vehicle. Vehicles may not be used for personal business outside the county. A deputy who lives outside the county must reside within 25 miles of the sheriff's office to get a vehicle. Deputies are required to tell dispatchers when they are using the vehicles.

Howard County: Patrol officers who live in the county must respond within 45 minutes of being called to an emergency. A patrol officer who lives outside the county must have five years of service and must reside within five miles of the county to get a take-home vehicle. Sergeants and lieutenants may not take the vehicles more than five miles from the border. Commutes may not extend beyond 25 miles from the county. Officers "should never rely solely upon that vehicle for off-duty usage."

Maryland State Police: Officers are required to keep vehicles within a 25-mile radius of work or home and may transport only "immediate relatives." Officers may not respond to life-threatening emergencies with passengers in the car.

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