Old, faulty cars are driving officers crazy

Posted at 7:43 AM, Feb 13, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-13 09:51:42-05

Holes in the floorboards. Cracks in fenders and bumpers. Metal that sticks out of torn seats and rips uniforms. Gas gauges that don't work. Radio equipment that malfunctions. Occasional breakdowns. Peeling paint.

And then there's the time a detective heading to a call took a turn and the steering wheel came off. He managed to avoid an accident, and no one was hurt.

These are New Haven's police cruisers.

"It's embarrassing," said Officer Craig Miller, president of the local police union. "It's unsafe for our patrol officers and unsafe for the community."

The police union, frustrated by years of cruiser problems and city funding cuts that have slowed purchases of new vehicles, filed a complaint with the state Board of Labor Relations in September, saying the poor condition of the fleet is creating unsafe work conditions. The matter is currently in mediation.

Police and city officials, meanwhile, announced plans last month to replace the department's 44 cruisers over the next few years. They also say city mechanics inspect vehicles in the police fleet two to three times a year to make sure they're safe.

New Haven appears to be an extreme example of police departments nationwide that are dealing with deteriorating vehicles and budget cuts.

In Pueblo, Colorado, 75 of the 100 marked police vehicles are older than five years, 51 have more than 100,000 miles on them, and one -- a 2000 Ford Crown Victoria -- is approaching 200,000 miles, the Pueblo Chieftan reported last month. Trenton, Ohio, officials have proposed a special police levy, some of which would be used to replace some police cruisers that are more than 10 years old, The Journal-News reported last month.

Of the more than 800 police vehicles in Tucson, Arizona, more than half have more than 80,000 miles -- the recommended maximum in some industry standards -- and more than 70 are at least 10 years old, KOLD-TV and the Arizona Daily Star reported. Officials said a five-year replacement budget was cut in 2008 and they replace cruisers when they can get the money.

In New Haven, the Finance Committee of the city's Board of Alders is expected later this month to consider a master lease plan that would allow the police department to buy 12 vehicles a year, in addition to the 12 a year already in the budget. City officials also are asking alders to increase the vehicle and maintenance budget by $150,000 to a total of $450,000 a year, to provide stable funding for vehicle replacement.

"There is no disputing many of these vehicles are in need of replacement or repair," said Officer David Hartman, the department's spokesman. "Out of necessity, we've retained many that are well past their prime. The reason is simply budgetary.

"There are problems. They're being corrected," Hartman said. "Everyone's generally optimistic. The permanent solutions lie in the hands of the city's finance committee."

New Haven's chief administrative officer, Michael Carter, said the city has yet to recover from severe cuts to its capital budget in 2008-2009 during the Great Recession and is also behind in replacing garbage trucks, snowplows, parks vehicles and other vehicles.

While city officers are driving troubled cruisers, Police Chief Dean Esserman and four assistant chiefs have newer sport utility vehicles. Esserman declined to comment.

In the city's current fiscal year, officials bought six 2014 Dodge Charger cruisers for detectives, two new Chargers for detectives and a new 2016 Ford Expedition for the chief, officials said. The city also bought 11 used cruisers, including a 1999 Ford.

Miller estimated that about three-quarters of city police cruisers have some kind of problem. He said a majority of the vehicles are Ford Crown Victorias, which Ford stopped producing in 2011. The department even has some Chevrolet Luminas, which were discontinued in 1999. Many city cruisers have logged close to 100,000 miles, he said.

From time to time, New Haven has replaced cruisers with used ones from nearby police departments. Miller drove an old Yale University Police Department cruiser for a while. While driving that cruiser to a call a couple years ago, Miller turned a corner and the laptop computer console swung hard into his hand, taking a layer of skin off.

"You get a sense of a city by what its police cars look like," Miller said. "They say that they're moving quickly to fix the issues. We'll see."