Lexington police officers are taking advantage of a change that allows them to use their cruisers for errands and other personal uses, department officials say.
There are no exact figures for how many police officers are using the benefit a month after Mayor Jim Gray signed an executive order that gave officers the right to drive their vehicles at no cost.
Lt. Roger Holland Jr. of the Lexington Division of Police said that because officers do not have to pay to use police vehicles off-duty, there is no way to track how many officers are taking advantage of it. But Holland said the department is starting to keep numbers of how many times off-duty officers respond to calls. Those numbers are still preliminary. Holland said that they will likely have better numbers on off-duty calls in coming months.
"We know people are using it," Holland said. "And we know officers are responding to off-duty calls."
The issue of how police officers can use their cruisers off duty became a flash point between the city and the police union last month.
Det. Jason Rothermund, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Bluegrass Lodge #4, said the FOP maintains that Gray does not have authority to change the collective bargaining agreement via an executive order.
Rothermund said that they are in discussions with the city on a possible agreement regarding the use of cruisers for personal benefit.
"We still firmly believe that this cannot be changed via executive order," Rothermund said.
The police union and the city had been negotiating for six months on reinstating the personal use benefit before Gray made the change by executive order July 11.
As part of a 2012 collective bargaining agreement, the city and the police agreed to do away with unlimited use of personal vehicles inside of Fayette County. Officers who paid $50 a month could use the vehicles for second jobs. Officers were also allowed to drive city-owned vehicles to and from home.
The move was expected to generate nearly $800,000 in gas, maintenance and other savings. However, the city calculated that figure to be $275,000 in 2013. The city and the union came to an agreement earlier this year to reinstate the use of the personal benefit for a fee of $50 a month. But the union suspended its vote because of concerns about statements Gray's staff had made during Urban County Council meetings that they said made it appear the police were to blame for the loss of the benefit.
Gray has said that his staff was simply stating the facts — the police union had agreed to eliminate the benefit to cut costs.
Anthany Beatty, Gray's opponent in the November general election, has been critical of the decision to suspend personal use of police cruisers. The visibility of those cruisers helps deter crime, Beatty has said.
Beatty, a former police chief, said in a news release last week that Lexington must have a mayor "that understands and appreciates proactive and not reactive public safety."
Gray has countered that the city's crime statistics actually went down in 2013 compared to 2012 and Lexington is much safer than other cities of the same size.