A police department adding a few new vehicles to its fleet isn't the kind of thing that typically warrants its own announcement.
But that's what happened on August 31, when the Prescott Valley Police Department posted on Facebook that it had acquired two new 2021 Dodge Challenger R/Ts, a model the carmaker markets as a "man-made muscle masterpiece." The accompanying photo showed the spiffy Challengers parked facing each other at an angle, their specialized police lights all lit up. The department thanked a $130,000 grant from the Arizona Governor's Office of Highway Safety for making the purchase possible and said the cars will be used to "aggressively enforce hazardous driving on our roadways."
The post wasn't particularly well-received.
"Money not well spent!" wrote one Prescott Valley resident. "Our hard-earned tax dollars are now buying police officers hot rods to cruise around in," said another. "Out of all the great things 130k could do in this small town and they get 2 more undercover sports cars for the PD," went another.
Tracy Gordon, a spokesperson for the Prescott Valley Police Department, acknowledged to Phoenix New Times that there is "a lot of emotion on that Facebook post." Asked specific questions about the rationale behind the purchase of the vehicles, Gordon said she would get answers from the department's "traffic sergeant." But as of the publication of this story, Gordon has not responded to follow-ups or provided those answers.
Alberto Gutier, director of the Arizona Governor's Office of Highway Safety, told New Times that the grant money came from Proposition 207, the voter-approved ballot initiative that legalized recreational marijuana sales and possession. Including in the ballot measure was a provision that shifted $10 million from the state's existing medical marijuana fund — which is financed through various revenue sources, such as medical marijuana sales — to the Arizona Governor's Office of Highway Safety for grants to "reduce impaired driving."
A number of other law enforcement agencies in Arizona have also received grants from that same pot of money, such as the Town of Marana Police Department and the Department of Public Safety. Gutier said the Prescott Valley Police Department asked his office for the grant last December to finance police vehicles.
According to Dodge's website, the starting retail price for Challengers is around $30,000. But when Gutier finally saw the invoices from the department prior to authorizing the grant last spring, he noticed that the agency had ordered a variety of high-end equipment for the cars, including radar and computers, that jacked up the total price to around $60,000 each. Generally, he said, grants for unmarked vehicles shouldn't break $45,000, and $60,000 was high even for the bells-and-whistles versions Prescott Valley police wanted.
"This went above and beyond," Gutier said. "That kind of bothered me. They put every possible thing to put in those cars."
But Gutier nevertheless approved the grant. Asked why he didn't refuse to authorize the money once he saw the invoices from the Prescott Valley Police Department, Gutier argued that the agency had already ordered the equipment and had a legitimate need for it. He also drew a distinction between money dedicated for impaired driving enforcement in Proposition 207 and the state's general fund.
"They started ordering stuff for the vehicles without having a contract in their hand, and that’s what raised the price, that’s what bugged the hell out of me," he said. "As long as those vehicles and the funding were provided by marijuana money and it follows the guidelines of what the intent was for traffic and enforcement, I’m OK with it."
The department's decision to flaunt the cars on Facebook was a misstep, Gutier added: "My question was, 'Why put a photograph like that showing off?'"