Without asking your department fleet manager (or checking your records, if you are the fleet manager), do you know how many vehicles in your patrol fleet share the same key? Can officers access and drive multiple vehicles with a single key?
Maybe your cars came with matching keys from the manufacturer or the upfitter. Maybe your department likes having shared keys because it makes it easier for officers to take a car and go when they need one. But is that convenience worth the security risk represented by shared keys?
Maintaining a patrol fleet with keys that match multiple vehicles (or even all of your vehicles) can turn into a far bigger nightmare than your officers being delayed by a few seconds to check out a key. Let’s take a look at some risks you should be aware of when it comes to shared keys.
Ease of Access
The ease of switching from car to car might be one of the biggest benefits of sharing patrol car keys across models. If officers are going out on patrol or need to change cars quickly — especially if they just dealt with a detainee’s mess at 3 a.m. — shared keys make it easy to get going quickly without dealing with a key management officer or a key/vehicle check-out procedure.
However, that ease of access for your officers is also ease of access for anybody who finds a key. If one of those keys lands in the wrong hands, the holder would have access to any number of your cars or even patrol cars in other jurisdictions. The vehicles could be taken and misused, or items inside the cars such as radios, weapons, or computers could also be stolen.
If multiple officers have matching keys with minimal oversight, your department also lacks accountability to manage how the officers are using those keys or if they’re ever returned when they’re no longer needed. Consider the question we started with: Do you know how many shared keys are floating around your department? Do you know where they are?
Rekeying Cars and Replacing Keys
Recall that even one missing key that gives access to multiple vehicles could be a major security risk for your fleet and other department assets. Once you’re aware that a key is missing, what’s going to be your response? Will you simply hope that the key turns up or that it will never be misused by whoever finds it?
You’re more likely to spend a lot of time and money on rekeying portions of your fleet to protect it from theft and misuse. One police department spent $140,000 on rekeying its entire fleet because it thought two sets of keys were unaccounted for — even though the keys were ultimately found. Also consider that you’ll have to replace the keys themselves, and modern key fobs carry a hefty price tag.
So what can be done to protect your department’s fleet?
Use Unique Keys and Fobs for Individual Vehicles
Sure, rekeying your entire fleet to unique keys for each vehicle is going to be a big expense, but it’s the best method for avoiding escalating costs as shared keys go missing over time. For some departments, replacing a single vehicle could represent a large portion of the total budget, and leaving vehicles at risk with shared keys shouldn’t even be an option.
In addition, would you rather scramble to get your fleet rekeyed after a missing key incident, or be able to plan it and work it into your budget over time? Protect your fleet with unique and properly managed keys.
Take Advantage of Key Management Systems
So you've rekeyed your fleet and now you have several unique patrol vehicle keys that need to be managed. It might seem like a headache on the surface, particularly for your key management officer. Somebody has to make sure keys are where they’re supposed to be and that logs are being properly maintained. However, key management doesn’t have to be a nightmare — even for a large fleet.
Consider using an electronic key control system that secures keys in a central location and gives officers a quick and easy way to check out keys without a management officer present. Such a system should track exactly who took keys and when, give administrative staff a verifiable audit trail, and hold officers accountable.
Your patrol vehicles play a critical role in your department operations. Whether you share keys across vehicles or not, it’s important for you to take steps to protect against the loss, theft, or misuse of keys. What have you done to make sure misplaced fleet keys don’t crash your department budget?