Should You Buy a Used Police Car?


Just about every new car gets to the point where its owner wants or needs to replace it and there’s every chance it will then end up being sold as a used car. There are loads of different types of used vehicles on the market at any one time, but have you ever wondered if you should consider buying a used police car?

You need to be aware of what you’re buying with a used police car even though they can be among the cheapest used vehicles out there on a dollar-for-dollar basis. You must consider the fact they guzzle gas, they’re usually very high mileage, they’ve been sat idling for hours throughout their working lives, and they’ve been used and abused more than just about anything else on the road.

Why buy a used police car?

The main reason anyone would consider buying an ex-police car is because they are cheap to buy. You will be able to buy a used police car for a fraction of the price of the equivalent model that hasn’t been owned and run by a police department, but there are good reasons for that.

First of all, an ex-police car is going to have a lot of miles on the odometer by the time it goes up for sale and those are going to have been pretty hard miles. Even so, there’s every chance the car will have been serviced with no expense spared throughout its working life and its history will be second to none.

Some people also like the idea of owning and running an ex-cop car, and the models they choose to use are often large, powerful models by the very nature of the job they have to do. Despite the fact they are worked hard by the police, the bodywork will often be in very good condition as the police hierarchy doesn’t want to see their officers driving around in beaten-up cars covered in dents and scratches.

Mostly though, the only reason to buy a used police car is because they’re cheap.

Why not buy a used police car?

Even if you come across an ex-cop car for sale that has reasonable miles on the odometer for its age, those miles are not necessarily a fair indication of the use that vehicle has had. I don’t mean that the police wind the odometer back to get a better price for the car at auction for heaven’s sake! What I mean is that although a police car could only do a few miles on patrol in a single day, a lot of that day could have been spent with one or two full-grown police officers sitting in there.

The heat will on full if it’s cold outside, the air conditioner will be run constantly if it’s hot, the battery will be run hard by the lights and radio, the doors, glove box and trunk will be constantly opened and closed to get stuff or just to kill time. Basically, every single button, switch, surface and feature in the vehicle will be used during every shift even though the odometer isn’t clocking up the miles in the process.

When the car is clocking up the miles, however, plenty of them will be hard miles. If you’re lucky the car you buy might have been a highway patrol vehicle that’s spent most of its life on long, straight, open roads at cruising speeds. If you’re not so lucky, you could end up with one that spent almost its entire life in stop/start traffic at low speeds in the town or city and idling parked up for hours like a mobile police station.

If you’re not knowledgeable enough about cars to buy at a regular auction without taking somebody with the relevant expertise with you, you definitely need help buying at a government auction.

Can you legally drive an ex-police car?

You’d think the police wouldn’t put their old cars up for sale to the public if they weren’t legal for civilians to drive on public roads as it is illegal to drive a retired cop car that still resembles a law enforcement vehicle.

According to a notice put out by a branch of the California Highway Patrol, “in order to make a retired law enforcement vehicle legal to drive on roadways, it needs to be painted to no longer have traditional black and white paint, police logos or markings and no red and blue lights or light bar.”

The actual letter of the law regarding what constitutes still resembling a police car varies from state to state, but don’t assume they will be fine to drive in the condition they’re offered for sale in. Although most police departments will remove stickers and other insignia of the department, some won’t.

Some buyers want used cop cars for collection pieces with all the markings, lights and other police symbolism intact. Collectors of old cop cars who want to retain or recreate the original signage have to obtain special permits or cover the artwork when they traveling on public roads.

Without doubt, the most controversial feature of ex-cop cars is the light bar mounted to the roof. Regulations about them vary from state to state with some not allowing front-facing red lights at all, some allowing roof-mounted lights as long as they’re not actually used, while others will not allow any roof-mounted lights whatsoever under any circumstance.

As long as you’re not intending to do anything illegal and can prove that the car you’re driving isn’t more like a real cop car than it was when you first purchased it you shouldn’t get in trouble. If you do buy one from the auction and it does still look like a cop car then you really should take a photograph of it for sale at the auction as proof. You probably also need to be prepared to get serious flack from police officers who mistakenly admonish you for impersonating a police officer, and fellow citizens who won’t be too pleased when they realize you’re not a real cop.

Are police cars faster than normal cars?

Whether it’s a Crown Vic, an Impala or an Explorer, you’re not going to find any small-displacement turbocharged engines under the hoods of ex-cop cars. The vast majority of used police cars you’ll find at an auction these days will have great big V8s powering them. While some police cars will have been tuned to be faster than the versions you can buy new from a showroom, many of them will just rely on the regular power of that V8.

Compared to the kind of high-powered compact, midsize and full-size we can buy today for pretty reasonable money, the average cop car is no great shakes in terms of performance. A Crown Vic might be pretty swift in a straight line but a Ford Focus RS or a Honda Civic Type R will leave them for dead in a high-speed car chase.

Are all used police cars black and white?

Not every used police car you’ll see for sale at auction will be black and white, although that color scheme is still the preferred combination in North America because it allows for the unambiguous recognition of patrol units from a significant distance. Don’t forget there are a lot of police who don’t wear uniforms and therefore don’t drive marked patrol cars. Detectives and other non-uniformed police employees often drive unmarked cars in various colors and they come to the end of their lifespan and get put up for sale just like ex patrol vehicles.

What vehicles do the police use?

Buying a used police car doesn’t mean you’re limited to a Crown Vic, although there is a limited number of vehicles that are available with police packages that are available for US police departments to choose from. Among the most popular models used by American police at the moment are the Chevrolet Tahoe, Dodge Charger, Dodge Durango, Ford Fusion, Ford Explorer and the Ford F-150.

What is the Fastest Police Car in America?

If we forget about those images from “Miami Vice” of undercover police driving Ferraris and Lamborghinis to blend in with bad guys, the fastest vehicle the police currently use for patrol at the moment is actually the Ford Police Interceptor Utility.

The latest Police Interceptor Utility is quite obviously based on the Ford Explorer that’s dressed for patrol, but the differences between this version and the civilized family version you can buy in showrooms are less subtle than you might think. The Ford Police Interceptor Utility is currently the fastest-accelerating and the police car in America with the highest top speed. The PIU has a top speed of 150 mph and gets from a standing start to 60 mph in as little as 5.77 seconds. With the average modern car having a top speed of around 120 mph, the Ford Police Interceptor Utility will give most vehicles a run for their money.

How to buy a used police car

Most police cars that are no longer required by the department are sold at government auctions. You might know of one near you, but if you don’t you can find out about every police and other government vehicle auction going on around the country right here. This is a definitive guide that will tell you much of what you need to know as well as when and where auctions are taking place.

As well as ex-police cars some of these auctions sell vehicles from other federal and local agencies as well as vehicles confiscated from criminals. Regardless of the origin and provenance of any vehicle you see for sale at one of these auctions, you really do need to know what you’re doing before you contemplate buying any vehicle at an auction.

Although an ex-cop car won’t have a murky past like many other auction cars can have, the one thing you know before you buy one is that it will have a had a pretty hard life before you buy it. You have to approach buying these cars with realistic expectations. Some of these vehicles will have been sitting undriven for weeks, months, even years after they were decommissioned, and that means you’ll almost certainly have to replace the battery. If you want to inspect the vehicle in person before you bid, which you absolutely should do if at all possible, a jump box would be a useful piece of kit to have with you unless the auction can help in that direction.

Not all police interceptors are created equal

Cars that are used by the police in the line of duty will usually have cloth front-seats and a vinyl back-seat combination and you should expect to find wires and holes wherever there was police equipment that has been removed. This also applies to the dash where police computers, radios and other equipment will have been installed and removed without any thought to the cosmetic mess left behind.

Black and white versions of these vehicles will usually be cheaper at the auctions than all black models, or other single color variations such as white, gray or silver. Most retail buyers prefer all-black police cars if they can get them so be prepared to pay more for any model that isn’t the traditional black and white.

If you fancy something a little swankier you will be able to find Police Interceptors that have a full cloth interior and none of the hanging wires or gaping holes that blight active duty models. These models also tend to been abused far less than their active-duty counterparts and have probably been used previously by government employees or, in some cases, police officials that don’t tend to find themselves engaged in high-speed pursuits on a regular basis. Due to their lower mechanical wear and interiors that are a lot more retail-friendly, these models inevitably command higher prices at auction.

Perhaps surprisingly to some people, police equipment left on the vehicle often adds value to the selling price rather than diminishing it. Features such as push bumpers, spotlights, rear window bars, and even the odd model with a full rear cage can all add value to the price these vehicles bring at auction.

Sean Cooper

Former retail auto industry professional for almost a decade and now an automotive writer and journalist for the last 7 years

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