Police In Teslas – Not The Fossil Fuel Transition Some Had In Mind

The people of Crested Butte want their local government to be a leader in climate change resilience. But some residents were not happy with the purchase of a new electric vehicle for the local police. KBUT’s Christopher Biddle has this story on what might have caused the backlash.

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Chief Marshal Mike Reilly of the Crested Butte Marshal’s office understands the limitations of social media. He has a rule: “I try not to argue with my dog or the internet.” But for this small-town police chief, there is no public relations team, so posting updates to Facebook is a regular part of the job. Like on August 12 last year, when he posted a photo of the department’s newest vehicle; a Tesla Model X.

Not everyone on Facebook that day, was impressed…“TIME OUT!” wrote one person. “You idiots spent money on a Tesla?”

“How much did that set me back in my property taxes???” asked another.

Others made fun of the futuristic falcon doors that open vertically instead of outward. Still more questioned the practicality of a police cruiser with limited battery life. There were some that supported the purchase, but the overall attitude was that a Tesla Model X was unreasonable.

Cartie Werthman said it’s, “just something that wealthy people in San Francisco do…and that’s completely out of touch with reality.” She co-authored a study that looked at the impact public relations firms had on climate change politics. The study found that industries like electric utilities, oil, coal, steel, and rail, pay millions for public relations, while environmental advocates and renewable energy pay comparatively very little for PR.

“The American Petroleum Institute has hired PR firms out the wazoo,” says Werthman. “And we’ve seen that with pretty much every climate, anything that would reduce our emissions in the United States. Like any sort of policy, they’re usually fighting against that.” For example, as part of their settlement over the diesel emission scandal, Volkswagen two billion dollars to fund electric vehicle infrastructure plans across the country, including two public charging stations in Crested Butte.

Thinking back to the public reaction in Crested Butte. There is no actual evidence that oil and gas pr firms had a hand in stirring the debate. These people had their own agendas; like the local housing crisis – officially declared by the Town Council only a few weeks before the arrival of the new car. Workers were fleeing the county for a place to live, or opted for the woods. Businesses cut back or closed all together.

It was also the summer after the murder of George Floyd, and the worldwide conversations on police reform. Phrases like “defund the police” had fully entered the American lexicon and the Crested Butte Marshals had even recently changed their uniforms from black to blue as part of that movement.

These were the issues that people were talking about that day… But both of those narratives depend on the narrative of a Tesla as a decidedly impractical and elitist vehicle, something the company’s real public image, and that of its celebrity billionaire founder Elon Musk, maybe doesn’t help. But the narrative has been around far longer than Musk’s celebrity or his car.

Marshal Joseph Dukeman says he was skeptical at first, but became a believer after seeing how fuel efficient the vehicle was. It’s actually the third electric vehicle in the Marshals own. They also have two electric motorcycles, and there’s a new Tesla on order – that’s how much they like it.

Chief Reilly says that like with most departments, he wanted to be sure that his marshals drove American-made cars, a notion that certainly counteracts some of the arguments about Tesla’s being out of touch with the American public.

As the department adds new Teslas to their fleet, Chief marshal Mike Reilly will likely remain the department defacto PR team, if the social media backlash returns, he’ll probably do what he did last time.

Time will tell if that’s enough to help change a very old, very powerful, very expensive narrative.

This story is part of a collaboration between the stations of Rocky Mountain Community Radio. Stories focus on the transition away from fossil fuels.

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