Cruisin' For Cash

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Video: Calling All Cars

Feb. 21, 2006

Like many small towns across America, Littleton Massachusetts is tightening its belt. The budget for most services has been slashed, including the police department.

This is a problem for Chief John Kelly, who desperately needs new patrol cars. His fleet of five marked cruisers all have between 120 and 150,000 miles on them, with equipment that's no longer cutting edge. Officers increasingly worried about their own safety and response time.

The chief says he felt he had little choice but to take an unusual, much-criticized step to upgrade his patrol cars. He’s selling advertising space on the quarter panels and rear bumper of patrol cars to pay for the new wheels.

12 grand a year for three years earns a local business the right to put a banner ad on the back and sides of a town police car. This allows Kelly to buy all new lights, sirens, radios, scanners, shotgun and assault rifle racks, and an on-board law enforcement laptop computer. Plus, it covers the entire cost of the vehicle lease. A local grocer, Donnelans, bought space to pay for the first new cruiser.

The town government approved the program, and reserves the right to refuse sponsorship to certain businesses, like liquor stores and adult video shops. The ads are relatively small, with the logo of the business beneath the words "in partnership with." Kelly points out the dominant lettering on the car remains "POLICE," and the ads aren't visible to a driver when he looks in the rearview mirror and sees the lights flashing and the squad car pulling him over. But, he admits he's taken quite a bit of flak.

"Certainly I have" he told me, "people in town, people in my chief's organization and people around the country have given us some heat. Examples are, you know, the police shouldn't be for sale."

Kelly insists his department is NOT for sale, of course, and the integrity and reputation of his officers remains strong. He says bottom line, he's secured $36,000 worth of equipment at no cost to taxpayers that will improve the performance of his department, and he plans to sell space on at least two more vehicles to further upgrade his fleet.

Still, the program is controversial. We could find only one other police department (in Indiana) currently selling ad space on patrol cars, and one other that tried and then discontinued the program. Dozens of others signed up with a company promising to sell ads on their police vehicles, but that company never delivered.

Chief Kelly says he doesn't consider himself a pioneer, and doesn't mind if people resent what he's doing. He says he's used to being criticized on a daily basis, just for doing his job, and that once people get used to the ads, they'll move on to another headline. As long as he's financially handcuffed, he says the ads will stay.

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