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Lt. Rodney Damron and his boss needed a little persuasion before converting part of their fleet from police cruisers to pickup trucks, but the investment quickly paid dividends and may have even saved a life. After bad winters and record floods, deputies were struggling to reach motorists and flood victims in traditional cruisers.
It was one of this winter’s coldest nights and the stranded motorist was lucky when Rodney Damron found him walking down a remote rural road. Another hour or so, and he could have frozen to death.
Actually, the man was lucky that Damron had grabbed a particular set of keys before leaving.
Damron is a lieutenant with the La Salle County Sheriff’s Office and was driving his police-issue pickup truck, a Dodge Ram 1500, not a standard cruiser. The roads were a mess that night, Damron recalled, and he wouldn’t have braved that unplowed roadway, much less found the pedestrian, without four-wheel drive.
“I have no doubt he would not have made it through the night out there walking,” Damron said. “It was below zero, with extremely high winds with almost zero visibility.”
If Damron and Sheriff Tom Templeton needed any further proof that the pickup trucks were a wise investment, the stranded motorist would have cinched it. A life saved was reason enough to have added four-wheel drive vehicles to La Salle County’s fleet.
But long before that snowy night, Templeton and Damron somewhat hesitantly purchased three pickups and quickly were pleased enough to purchase three more — and that was before last year’s record floods and this year’s miserable winter further proved their worth.
“It’s nice being in a full-size vehicle and the four-wheel drive comes in real handy,” Damron said. “We see a lot of severe weather conditions and we’re out there 24/7, no matter what the weather conditions and we’ve seen some pretty bad snowstorms lately.
“You get out of town, out in the country and that wind is brutal. You’re up higher, you can see better and it’s a lot easier to keep it under control and get places you need to go.”
Standard police cruisers still are needed for city and highway patrols — sedans still are needed for police pursuit situations — but the day is coming when nearly half the sheriff’s fleet will be comprised of pickup trucks, SUVs and military-surplus humvees.
The shift was some years in the making. Templeton recalled the past few winters and increasing floods underscored the limits of conventional police cruisers.
“We weren’t able, especially during the wintertime and the flood seasons, to get around in the cars where we needed to and it’s happening year after year,” Templeton said. “The floods and snows are getting worse.
“Our thoughts were, ‘There’s got to be a way to do better.’”
Dodge had the solution. The automaker had tried for some years to penetrate the market for police service vehicles with at first only limited success; their sport-utility vehicle was too expensive for budget-minded agencies and the crossover wagon was a flat-out bust.
Then Dodge issued a police Ram pickup. Rural sheriffs departments took note. Curious, Templeton and Damron remembered taking a test drive at a Peoria police conference and were impressed not only with the four-wheel drive but also with the handling, sight lines and storage space.
“The ride was pretty amazing,” Templeton said.
Templeton liked the pickups; his deputies loved them. The sheriff’s office includes large men who have to fold themselves into low-lying squad cars and these men warmed immediately to climbing effortlessly into a spacious cab.
Templeton, for his part, was pleasantly surprised with how the pickups were comparable to cruisers in price (about $22,000) and in fuel economy and how the blue book suggests better resale value for a pickup than for a sedan.
There were other, unforeseen benefits. The additional height gives patrol officers a better vantage point on patrols, search and rescue efforts and amid blowing snow.
Pickups are also better patrol vehicles than Templeton suspected. Speeding motorists who warily slow for white sedans have zipped by black pickup trucks, and then been surprised when the flashing lights go on.
When a river search ended in tragedy, sheriff’s deputies were able to whisk the body into the covered flatbed, giving onlookers only a split-second glimpse of the body.
“They were able to move the man in a dignified manner,” Templeton said. “Something as simple as that people don’t think really about, but to me that would be important. If that were my brother, father or whatever, it would be important that there was some dignity attached to this.”
Tom Collins can be reached at (815) 220-6930.
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