Ford to give police help with Taurus

April 06, 1994|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,Sun Staff Writer

The name of Baltimore City purchasing agent Brent Lehmann was incorrectly spelled in yesterday's editions of The Sun.

The Ford Motor Co. plans to send a team of technicians to Baltimore to resolve complaints that the city Police Department's $2 million fleet of Tauruses is troubled by failures.

The announcement from the Detroit carmaker comes as police departments around the country are complaining that the Taurus, which Ford began selling as a squad car four years ago, is expensive to maintain and prone to breakdowns.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

"It has bled my budget dry," said Stan Niedzielski of the Annapolis police, echoing mechanics from Maryland to Omaha, Neb., who describe a litany of failures from broken transmissions to bad motor mounts.

Amid such assessments -- and lingering questions about the way Baltimore went about purchasing 140 of the cars -- Ford has issued conflicting statements about the Taurus' fitness for police work.

The company's customer service division in Detroit has said in recent weeks that Ford engineers never designed the Taurus -- the nation's top-selling family sedan -- for use as a police cruiser. But Ford's government sales manager said this week that the car was beefed up so that it could be sold to police.

"It has been fully tested as a police vehicle," said Jack LaBelle of Ford. "Believe me, as the government sales manager I would know. And I think you'll find if you contact some of our customers that they are fully satisfied."

But two of the three police departments provided as referencesby Ford reported problems with the car, and the third -- the Los Angeles County sheriff's office -- said it doesn't use the car as a cruiser.

"We test a lot of vehicles for Ford, so there's a lot of goodwill there"said Dan Riley, auto repair foreman for the city of Omaha, which boughtabout 140 Tauruses for its police. "But I can't say the car is something it's not. And it's not a good police car.

"You name the problem, we've had it with the Taurus: blown transmissions, front ends out of whack, wiring burning up in the --boards, brakes that don't hold up, seats breaking down."

In Maryland, police departments in Baltimore County, Howard County and Annapolis are abandoning the Tauruses for similar reasons after purchasing them in limited numbers for field testing, fleet managers and police said.

Baltimore's Police Department, the only major one in the nation to use Tauruses as cruisers, according to Ford, was also the only city in Maryland to buy them in large numbers without testing them on a trial basis.

Brent Lehman, the purchasing agent who oversaw the Taurus program, refused to discuss how the city came to spend $2 million of taxpayers' money on an untried vehicle over the past two years. He also refused to release contract documents, specifications and memorandums on the car. The Sun is seeking access to the documents under the Maryland Public Information Act.

"That is not public information," Mr. Lehman said. "The only persons who are entitled to see those documents are the companies that bid on the contract at the time. No one else has any right to review those papers."

But Baltimore didn't put the contract out to bid. Instead, it purchased the Tauruses under an existing contract between the Sheehy Ford dealership and Anne Arundel County using a state law that allows Maryland cities and counties to join each other's purchasing deals without conducting their own bids.

Documents released by Anne Arundel County show that police there bought 11 of the cars for field testing before expanding their Taurus fleet. Over the past two years, Baltimore has bought 70 under the same deal with Sheehy Ford and then followed that order with the purchase of 70 more.

Doug Carson, general manager at Sheehy, refused to discuss how the company went about securing the Baltimore contract. "We were awarded a contract, and we performed on the contract," he said. "That's all I can say about it."

Deputy Police Commissioner Michael Zotos, who sat on the committee that decided to buy the Tauruses from Sheehy after nearly a decade of requiring Chevrolet dealers to bid competitively to sell the department Caprices, said he does not know whether Sheehy or Ford lobbied for the contract.

"They never approached me personally," he said. "Whether they attempted to influence anyone in the Purchasing Department or the city Central Garage, I don't know. Frankly, that's who we rely on when we make these kind of decisions. They are the ones with the technical expertise."

Ken Queen, who oversaw the purchasing of the Tauruses in Anne Arundel County, said he recommended that his Police Department consider the car after attending a road test in Michigan in 1989 and listening to a Ford representative tout the Taurus as "the police car of the future."

Foreshadowing problems now being reported by other departments, the brakes on the Taurus test car failed during a high-speed run around the track, Mr. Queen said.

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