If "unmarked cop car" is the last thing you think of when a Prius pulls up next to you — think again.
Instead of the old, familiar Chevy Impala or Buick Century — not to mention the out-of-production Ford Crown Victoria — police could be watching you from a Toyota Prius, Ford Fusion, Hyundai Elantra or a variety of other makes and models.
"What we try to do is buy cars that blend into everyday living," said Assistant Chief Edgar Morley of the Boca Raton Police Department, which bought four Priuses in 2005. "The question we like criminals to think is, 'Is that car next to me an unmarked police car?'"
Fort Lauderdale police are now diversifying their unmarked fleet through a new contract that gives the department more flexibility in selecting cars and will also replace the cars much more frequently.
"I anticipate the fleet to look like a Walmart parking lot," Fort Lauderdale Police Capt. Eric Brogna said. "There's going to be everything you could possibly imagine there — save your high-end luxury cars."
The unpredictability of the cars can give departments an edge against criminals, said Katrina Powell, president of Government Fleet Services, which will be buying unmarked cars for Fort Lauderdale.
"You're not going to surprise anybody when you pull up in a Malibu," Powell said. "But if it's a bright red hybrid, you're not expecting pretty blue lights to go on and someone to step out with a shiny badge."
Fort Lauderdale last month approved a $6.1 million contract with Powell's company to replace 247 of its aging unmarked vehicles over the next two years.
Under the new contract, Powell's Longwood company will sell nearly new cars to the city at 3 percent below wholesale price. The vehicles will be used for a year to 18 months, then sold before their warranties run out.
"It's a brand new concept. I don't know anyone in the area that's doing it," Brogna said. "This may be the future of government fleets. … It looks like a very promising program."
Because the cars are bought at auction and not through a contract with an individual dealer, the department has more latitude in what it purchases.
"We have access to a much more diverse kind of car," Brogna said. The city will get about 10 cars a month over the contract's life to rotate into its fleet.
Police realize that as they put less typical police cars into duty, people being stopped by unmarked cars may start wondering if they're being pulled over by an impostor that might do them harm.
Worried drivers can slow down and drive to a safe, well-lit area before stopping, and then ask to see the officer's identification, Boca Raton's Morley said. They can also call 911 if they have a cellphone, so dispatchers can verify whether a real officer is trying to make the stop, he said.
The more traditional unmarked police cars still make sense for those detectives and other non-uniformed personnel not involved in surveillance-type activities, Morley said. But those cars can be a dead giveaway when a low profile is critical.
"If you're using them in a variety of other situations, then you need something that's not going to stick out like a sore thumb," Morley said. "We still want to maintain that stealthiness."
While buying a newer vehicle can seem expensive, Powell said Fort Lauderdale currently is racking up significant maintenance costs on its older cars, which are increasingly spending more time in the shop and less time on the streets.
The vehicles used to be replaced every five years, but tight budgets have forced the city to hang onto the cars for even longer, Brogna said.
When Fort Lauderdale police got rid of 11 unmarked vehicles last year — all 2002, 2003 and 2004 models — the city had averaged almost $9,000 in maintenance costs on them. The 47 unmarked cars that are to be replaced by Oct. 1 are 7 to 9 years old.
The contract works out to a cost of $26,000 per vehicle this year and $24,440 in future years, although Powell said the cars she buys will not be that expensive. The newer cars will also get better mileage.
The city has a separate firm that will add lights and sirens to the cars, she said.
By swapping out the cars before their warranties run out, the city can earn top dollar on the auction block, Powell said.
"The vehicles they have right now, they have no resale value," Powell said. "The minute the warranty goes out, the vehicle just plummets in value."