City police say they're short on patrol cars

Marked units logging frequent shop time

September 06, 2004|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

Baltimore police commanders and union officials say a shortage of working marked patrol cars has interfered with the department's ability to fight crime, forcing the cancellation of some initiatives and periodically lengthening response times.

Some days this summer, nearly half of the approximately 300 marked police cars designated for patrol have been parked at city garages awaiting repair, according to department statistics.

"Patrol is dependent [on] its ability to be mobile," Police Commissioner Kevin P. Clark said. "It is key to what we do. ... You want people to see you. You want that deterrence."

At issue is the heart of any police department -- its ability to patrol streets, preventing crime and responding to 911 calls, say law enforcement officials and experts. A department's ability is limited largely by two resources, people and cars.

City police officials say a shortage of the marked vehicles has forced them, at times, to take several actions: putting two officers in a car, making some walk and ordering others to patrol in unmarked vehicles.

The status of cars, commanders said, has forced most of the 150 detectives and administrators recently reassigned to the patrol division to double up in cars and work on foot.

Longer response times

When two officers are assigned to one car and asked to patrol twice the area, it hurts response times, said Dan Fickus, president of the local police union. "It is a big problem," Fickus said "They want to do the job, but they don't have the equipment to do the job with. It shackles them."

Department leaders blame the shortage mostly on an aging fleet, but they also note an increase in police-involved accidents.

Mayor Martin O'Malley said he doesn't see the problem as a shortage, but rather mismanagement. It's "a situation where one area of the department has a surplus while another doesn't have enough cars," O'Malley said.

The mayor said he has ordered the department to reshuffle its fleet to better meet demands. If after reshuffling the fleet it becomes clear the department still needs additional cars, O'Malley said that he would give more consideration to the department's request to purchase more cars.

Police officials say they are not at odds with the mayor, and Chief of Patrol J. Charles Gutberlet III said he is shuffling around some vehicles. He said he has found 20 marked cars being used by units that did not need them, such as the one that attends to the police helicopter. But Clark said getting new cars is a top priority.

On Thursday, 41 percent of the department's marked cars designated for patrol were in need of repairs and out of commission.

That's an extraordinarily high number, according to John Alley, the chairman of the law enforcement group for the National Association of Fleet Administrators. National standards call for a maximum of about 5 percent of a fleet to be down at one time, he said.

In the Southern District on Thursday, commanders needed 21 cars to patrol a shift -- a typical number for the area that includes neighborhoods such as Federal Hill, the downtown stadiums and Cherry Hill.

The city is divided into districts, which are split into sectors, which are split into posts. An officer with a marked patrol car is assigned to each post. Supervisors also require cars.

But on Thursday, there were only 18 available marked cars in the Southern District, three less than needed. That meant three officers -- likely sergeants and other supervisors -- were forced to patrol in unmarked vehicles, walk or ride as the second person in a car.

It also meant there were no marked vehicles available for any of the district's discretionary units, such as those that serve warrants, saturate high-crime areas and specialize in drug enforcement.

Unanticipated problems

Gutberlet said the cars sometimes linger at city garages because they go in for work as simple as an oil change and end up requiring more significant maintenance. More than 40 percent of the cars in the city's fleet have rolled past 75,000 miles, he said.

The optimum mileage for retiring a police car is 78,000, before it hits significant trouble, said Alley of the National Association of Fleet Administrators. He is also the San Diego police fleet administrator.

He said budget constraints force most agencies, such as his, to attempt to retire their vehicles at 100,000, though some do it as early as 50,000.

In Baltimore, the number of marked patrol cars purchased over the past six fiscal years has averaged 52 a year -- far fewer than might be needed when more than 40 percent of the city's 300-car fleet is near the optimal mileage standard.

Another factor contributing to the shortage of cars is accidents. As of last week, there had been 404 crashes this year involving police cars. That puts the department on a pace for more than 600 crashes, more than it has had in any of at least the past four years.

Several experts said it makes little difference whether officers patrol in marked or unmarked cars, as the inside equipment is identical and unmarked cars also have flashing lights.

"The issue is deterrence, whether or not a patrol officer in a marked car has a deterrent effect on crime," said professor Jeffrey Ian Ross, a University of Baltimore criminologist. "Most research indicates patrol does not lead to a decrease of crime."

However, marked cars do affect residents' perception of the police, Ross and others said. "Unmarked cars are important," said professor Eli B. Silverman at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, "but you also need visibility for people's sense of security."

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