David Kidwell

As they go about their duties of enforcing law in the city of Houston, officers with the Houston Police Department are sporting a new look.

The department has recently upgraded its fleet of patrol cars, and its officers now wear a different style of hat.

The upgrade in transportation involved the purchase of three Ford Crown Victoria sedans from the Missouri State Highway Patrol: a 2006 model, a 2007, and a 2008. An unmarked car to be driven by Chief Jim McNiell was obtained last year, while the other two were purchased early this year.

The new vehicles join the 2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee used by Sgt. Tim Ceplina, and replace a set of Chevrolet Impalas that were getting up in age and mileage. The Fords were purchased with general revenue budgeted from the city. Prices ranged from $11,200 to $12,800.

“We started having some problems with the Impalas, so we decided it was time to replace them,” McNiell said.

After MSHP cars pass the 50,000-mile mark, they are made available to other law enforcement agencies in Missouri. McNiell, a veteran of 33 years with the patrol, said the cars represent a great value.

“The Missouri State Highway Patrol has one of the most elite car programs in the nation,” he said. “Once they’ve used their cars for their designated amount of time, they allow other state agencies to buy a quality, police-package vehicle at a reasonable price. They buy them in volume and save large sums of money. Those savings then get passed on to us.

“And when these cars come to us, they have new tires and everything under the hood is heavy-duty. It makes for a vehicle better-suited for the type of work law enforcement officers do.”

The department’s switch from Chevy to Ford wasn’t done to address anyone’s personal preference, but rather the availability of service in town. While Houston’s Chevrolet dealership recently closed its doors, Romines Ford offers the option of nearby repair.

“We don’t have a Chevrolet dealership here any more, with their mechanics to work on cars,” McNiell said. “So we would have had to take our cars outside the community for service. It makes good sense for us to go the direction we did, so we can have Ford mechanics — who have a better understanding of their products — working on our cars.”

The Impalas will be sold at auction sometime this month, and proceeds from the sale will go back into the city’s general revenue fund.

“They’re still good vehicles,” McNiell said, “especially considering what they’ll probably sell for at auction. Even if they have a minor mechanical problem, they’ll still be cheaper than a similar car at a car lot.”

The department’s updated fleet also sports an updated look, as new graphics were designed and applied to the three marked cars.

“We played with several ideas, and narrowed it down to six designs that were all similar, except for some minor differences,” McNiell said. “Five of the six officers voted for the same one. It’s appealing.”

Not only do the new graphics look sharp, they add an element of safety.

“They’re up-to-date,” Ceplina said, “but they’re also reflective, so they’re more visible. They have a big, blue reflective stripe on them, so when cars come by at night and the guys are on a traffic stop, they can be seen because the decals just jump out.”

The new graphics have also been applied to Ceplina’s Jeep.

Including McNiell, the HPD now features six full-time officers and two reserves. As of late last year, they wear wide-brim, charcoal gray hats (similar in style to the blue headgear worn by Missouri State Highway Patrol troopers), which replace the taxi-driver hats donned for the past several years.

Consideration is also being given to possibly changing to a gray shirt, especially during hot summer months, while staying with the “Los Angeles PD” dark blue the rest of the year.

“We just want something that won’t absorb so much heat and be a little more comfortable in the summer,” McNiell said.

The HPD’s reserve officers work on an as-needed basis. McNiell said they’ll be involved with this weekend’s big Christian concert at Houston High School, featuring nationally-known Fireflight and a couple of other bands.

“We’re anticipating a big crowd,” he said, “so we’ll have four officers working the event, plus eight civilian security people who will be additional eyes for us.”

Increased workload could lead to increased staff

“The Houston PD is a top-notch department,” McNiell said, “but we’re overworked.”

Numbers from 2011 back that statement, as the department responded to hundreds more calls than in 2010. McNiell said he hopes to address that situation by adding at least one more full-time officer.

Funding for additional manpower would likely come from a COPS grant (Community Oriented Policing Services) provided by the United States Department of Justice. The grant works by paying a new officers’ salary for the first three years, while the city picks it up after that.

Houston tried to secure a COPS grant the previous year, but didn’t score high enough for approval. After the big workload increase the HPD experienced in 2011, McNiell figures the chances of landing a grant are probably better this time around.

“They look at need, and I can think we can show the need,” he said. “We can score higher by promoting our statistics — what we did last year compared to 2010 should certainly open a few eyes.

“But I think at least one more officer in this department would considerably relieve the work load on all our officers. If you look at everything we do, including service-rendered calls, arrests, warnings and everything else, we’d probably be pushed over 3,000 contacts for the year. And we’re already on pace this year to at least match last year.”

McNiell said he also hopes to find a source of funding to equip each officer in the department with a taser. The HPD currently has three tasers, two of which are used by officers on shift, while the other is kept at all times by McNiell.

“I think it’s a good tool to have that’s proven to be very reliable,” McNiell said. “We don’t use them much, but it’s a use of force that’s not as life-threatening as a gun.”

“And people see the laser being pointed at them and they stop,” Ceplina said.

The taser is considered third on the level of force among weapons employed by police officers. First is a gun, and a 24-inch metal bar known as an asp is second.

While there was one incident in 2011 that prompted an HPD officer to draw his gun, none pulled a trigger while on duty last year.

“Most officers will go through a career and never fire a gun,” McNiell said, “except in practice.”

“It’s not all like CSI,” Ceplina said.

Although he knows his department can’t rest on its laurels, McNiell believes the general state of the HPD is good.

“We have six officers here who are highly trained and very capable,” he said. “They’re very mature officers who exercise good judgment day in and day out. Houston is fortunate to have the caliber of officers we have.”

Ceplina has been with the HPD for 19 years, second only to corporal David Kidwell’s 26. Having worked with many officers who have come and gone, he concurred with his chief that the department is currently stacked with talent.

“Some of the guys here might not have as many years on as some of us, but they have good quality experience, and their judgment is based on that,” Ceplina said. “We can trust them in any given situation, and know that they’re going to make proper decisions and good choices.”

Houston is fortunate to have the caliber of officers wehave.”

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