Wrecks put police car fleet on the skids

April 28, 1994|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,Sun Staff Writer

The old white Chevy looks as if it was hit by a falling piano. The roof is bashed in, all of the windows are gone, and the doors are popped off their hinges. Nearby, a new Ford squats on flat tires with its grille stuffed full of mud and grass.

"That one has obviously been someplace it shouldn't have been," says Ben Franklin as he walks through the wreckage in the Baltimore Police Department's motor pool.

The city's chief mechanic points out dozens of other broken-down squad cars. A blown transmission here. A crushed fender there. In all, 80 cruisers -- roughly a quarter of the city's patrol fleet -- are waiting for repairs at the city's Central Garage. And about 20 others are headed for the scrap yard.

From atop this heap of battered iron can be seen a crisis in the police motor pool that has prompted newly appointed police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier to order a departmental inquiry.

"It doesn't get much more basic than cars," he said in a recent interview. "It's right up there with a gun,a radio and a badge as an officer's essential tools. Just how bad a problem it is, I don't know yet. But my gut tells me it's very bad."

A review of department records reveals a fleet that has been run into the ground by a wave of preventable crashes, four years of budget cuts and mismanagement, and one harsh winter that nearly doubled the number of ice-related wrecks. Among Mr. Frazier's key concerns are likely to be:

* Mounting crashes as a flood of accident-prone rookies enters the force. The number of preventable crashes rose 74 percent over the past decade to set a record last year of 250. And the department expects to absorb about 800 more rookies by 1997.

* Management blunders and miscalculations. Police commanders paid $2 million for 170 front-wheel drive Ford Tauruses, only to find they were unfit as police cruisers when their failure rate soared. The department also shut down the only repair station available to fix minor problems, forcing more cars into the city's Central Garage.

* An overall loss of 144 patrol cars to budget cuts since 1988. Mr. Frazier has won approval to replace the cars by 1995, but the cuts added wear and tear to the department's existing fleet, increasing breakdowns just as the city was cutting the number of mechanics available to fix them.

"The commissioner comes in to work on Monday mornings and goes nuts," said Lt. Ken Streets of the traffic division. "And rightfully so. How can you run a police department when 30, 40 or 50 percent of your vehicles are being taken out of action on any given weekend?"

Perhaps most troubling for the new police chief -- who helped turn the San Jose Police Department into a nationally recognized model of efficiency -- is that Baltimore police have never assembled these and other measures of the city's failing police fleet into any coherent form.

"You can't tell the City Council and the taxpayers that you need 'x' number of dollars to solve a problem unless you can satisfy them that you're doing everything possible to meet it with your available resources," said Col. Steven A. Crumrine, the department's fiscal director since 1992.

"More cars would obviously help, but I haven't seen anything to show that it will solve the problem completely."

Department records suggest that it won't. Compared with the nation's six largest police departments, Baltimore already provides more patrolcars per 100 officers than any other major city in the country except Houston, according to interviews and a survey by the Washington, D.C.-based Police Foundation.

But Baltimore's officers tend to wreck more cars than most of the "Big Six" departments -- chewing up so many cruisers that on some days as much as half of the fleet is in for repairs, Lieutenant Streets said.

Last year, Baltimore police averaged 16 wrecks for every 100 officers, a threefold increase in crashes over the past decade. By comparison, the New York City Police Department's accident rate was 11 per 100 officers in 1993 and has remained consistent at that level since at least 1986.

Officer Paul K. Lamond, who tracks the Baltimore department's crashes, said the single greatest factor has been the 1,000 rookies who have come into the department over the past five years. In 1993, they were responsible for 56 percent of the department's 250 preventable accidents.

"You would probably expect that they're wrecking all these cars when they're rushing to crime scenes and emergency calls at night," he said. "But they're not. They're wrecking them in broad daylight, in clear weather, while they're on routine patrol -- usually by running a red light or stop sign."

Last week, 42 percent of the 80 cruisers brought to the Central Garage for repairs had been involved in crashes, Mr. Franklin said.

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