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If you are picked up by police these days, you can expect some more legroom.

Patrol vehicles are getting bigger, just like the officers and some of those getting into the back seats.

Buffalo police last week put the first 12 Chevrolet Tahoes onto city streets; 37 more will join the fleet by mid-month.

In Amherst, 10 Ford Interceptor sport utility vehicles and 10 Ford Interceptor sedans are on patrol.

Hamburg has three Ford Explorer SUVs and two more due by summer, plus 10 recently purchased Ford Interceptor sedans.

In Cheektowaga, officers drive 12 Tahoes, three Ford Expedition SUVs and one Chevy Suburban SUV as the town phases out its 18 Crown Victoria sedans, which Ford has stopped making.

Officers, the equipment they carry and the people they pick up are getting bigger, so departments are opting for bigger vehicles, especially SUVs.

“I have one deputy who is 6-foot-9-inches, and he does not fit inside a patrol car,” said Niagara County Sheriff James R. Voutour, whose department has also acquired Chevy SUVs. “The Tahoes are also good in very bad weather. It was nice to put them out on patrol during the blizzards this year. We have a combination of two-wheel- and four-wheel-drive Tahoes.”

At 6-feet-6 and 275 pounds, Buffalo Police Officer John T. Kujawa fit the build for trying out a new generation of police vehicles to see which would fill the department’s needs.

This giant of an officer struggled to maneuver himself behind the wheel of Ford and Chevy police sedans. Climbing in the back seat where prisoners are placed for transport was even harder. But when he stepped into the Tahoe SUV, what a relief.

“I was hitting my head against the ceiling of the cars we tried out, but as soon as I got into the Tahoe, I knew this vehicle would be able to accommodate any size officer and there would be ample room to safely transport prisoners,” Kujawa said.

Buffalo buys 49 Tahoes

Kujawa’s opinion weighed heavily in swaying the Buffalo Police Department to purchase 49 Tahoes.

There are other advantages to integrating SUVs into a fleet of police cars, law enforcement officials say. Fuel efficiency, cheaper maintenance, better vantage points, better handling in harsh weather and greater public visibility also are factors.

The newer vehicles are more fuel-efficient than the Crown Victorias, which police fleet managers said got as little as 8 miles per gallon. Tahoes get nearly double the mileage.

SUVs offer better maneuverability and steering during harsh winter weather, police say. There’s also increased visibility for both the officer behind the wheel and for citizens, who can more easily spot an SUV patrol cruiser.

“Everything is about being more visible to the public, and with the new black-and-white color scheme and the highly reflective striping on the sides, the Tahoes are easy to see and more recognizable as police vehicles,” Buffalo Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda said.

And the bigger SUVs also provide officers with an elevated perspective, allowing them to be more thorough in their patrols, Kujawa said.

“In a Tahoe, you can look down into a car beside you and check for guns or drugs or if a person is on the phone, texting or wearing a seat belt,” said the 29-year police veteran.

Kujawa patrols with Destro, a German shepherd police dog.

“In a sedan, you’re lower to the ground, and you can’t get clear views into yards,” he said.

Might a large SUV hurrying through streets pose more of a danger to citizens than a patrol car?

“The police Tahoe has a lower profile than a higher-sitting civilian SUV, and it’s equipped with heavy-duty brakes and steering and bigger tires, actually giving it more control than the old patrol cars,” Kujawa said.

With fleet maintenance costs a concern to the city, Buffalo purchased two-wheel-drive Tahoes because they are less expensive to fix, according to Capt. Mark Makowski, a member of the city’s vehicle review committee, which included police mechanics and city purchasing personnel.

“We looked at all-wheel-drive vehicles, and the repair bills for front-end accidents are much more expensive,” Makowski said.

And besides better gas mileage, the Tahoe sipped less fuel when parked and idling, he said, something that happens often in police work, whether at a traffic stop or guarding a crime scene.

“The Tahoe has eight cylinders, but when it’s parked, it idles on four cylinders. When on regular patrol, it runs on six cylinders, and in pursuits operates on all eight cylinders,” Makowski said.

The safety of prisoners was also a consideration.

As Kujawa demonstrated when he struggled to sit in the back of a Chevy Caprice sedan or a Ford Interceptor sedan, which resembles a Taurus, the tight squeeze had police officials thinking in terms of complaints against the department.

“We want to avoid complaints of police mistreatment to Internal Affairs because the prisoner had to be packed into the patrol vehicle,” a police official explained.

‘We split the fleet in half’

When Buffalo’s remaining 37 Tahoes arrive next month, they will reduce the department’s aging fleet of Crown Victorias to 131. That number will drop each year as more Tahoes are purchased, though Makowski points out that the department will monitor the SUVs’ performance.

If theses vehicles fail to live up to expectations, he said, there is nothing to stop the city from looking at alternatives.

This first group of Tahoes was purchased from city money with no help from grants. Emerling Chevrolet, of the Town of Boston, submitted the low bid at $26,000 per vehicle. But when outfitted with police equipment, the price of the Tahoe jumped to about $40,000.

Although the Tahoe is a popular vehicle, it is by no means the only option for police. In Cheektowaga, the Tahoe received good reviews, but that department now plans to buy six Ford Interceptor sedans because the all-wheel-drive feature is less expensive than on the Tahoe.

“The Tahoes are nice and roomy, and you can carry a lot of equipment in them, but they are only a two-wheel-drive vehicle. Obviously, you can get it in four-wheel-drive, but we are going to give the Ford Interceptor sedan a try,” said Cheektowaga Assistant Police Chief James J. Speyer Jr.

“We’re going to do that because Ford makes an affordable all-wheel-drive version. They are supposed to be better in bad weather with handling.”

Cheektowaga will pay $26,500 apiece for the basic sedan, prior to the upgrades. Prices for the new vehicles vary, depending on how many are sought in bids, police officials explained: The more that are purchased, the lower the price per vehicle.

Erie County Sheriff’s Office road patrol deputies drive Tahoes and Ford Interceptor sedans, and both have received positive reviews. But when it is time to buy new vehicles, Ford wins out.

“As far as being a manager, the Ford sedan is a better option because of better gas mileage, and we save money in the garage with repair bills,” Undersheriff Mark N. Wipperman said.

The Interceptor sedan gets 18 miles per gallon in city driving and 26 on highways.

Amherst Police Officer Thomas M. Barillari, whose duties include management of the department’s patrol vehicles, said that in the last two years, the town has purchased 10 Ford sedans and 10 Ford SUVs, paying $25,000 and $26,000 per vehicle, respectively.

“We split the fleet in half. The sedans and utility vehicles have the same engines, wheels and brakes,” Barillari said, “so … it is easier to manage parts and the usual wear items. We put about 100,000 miles per year on each of our primary fleet patrol vehicles.”

With six-cylinder engines in the new vehicles, the price of fuel, compared with the Crown Victorias, creates substantial savings.

“The sedans and utilities average about 16 miles to the gallon, compared to 8 miles we got with the Crown Victorias,” Barillari said.

But even the most efficient police cars are bound to consume more gasoline because they are constantly on the road and often hurrying to emergency calls, said Voutour, the Niagara County sheriff.

“You won’t get good mileage in any police car. They stop, they idle, then they are sometimes driven fast. They are not driven like a normal car,” said Voutour, whose patrol fleet includes Chevy Caprices, Dodge Chargers, older Crown Victorias and Tahoes.

Troopers return to sedans

“We’ve had good luck with the new Caprices that are replacing the Crown Victorias and the Dodge Chargers,” Voutour said. “What I like about the Tahoes is they give our three K-9 officers more room for their equipment and dogs.”

The Tahoes, he added, can accommodate bigger deputies, and Tahoe repair costs have been reasonable.

As for the State Police, they began a return to sedans for patrol purposes, after buying Tahoes starting in 2005.

“The New York State Police fleet is a combination of sedans and utility vehicles. However, the agency is ordering more sedans and is only ordering utility vehicles based on specific detail-unit needs,” Trooper Jason D. Jones said.

Units getting SUVs, he said, include Special Operations Response Teams, Concealed Identity Traffic Enforcement and K-9, because the utility vehicles provide more space for equipment.

email: lmichel@buffnews.com