D.C. police relying on aging patrol vehicles

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Photo - Examiner File
Examiner File
Local,DC,Crime,Eric P. Newcomer,Phil Mendelson,Vincent Gray

Nearly a quarter of the vehicles in the Metropolitan Police Department's patrol fleet should be removed from the road and replaced, according to the District's own standards.

The department expects that 24 percent of police patrol vehicles this fiscal year will be outside their preferred replacement window, with officers continuing to drive cruisers that have exceeded the department's guidelines that they be replaced after five years or 100,000 miles.

Mechanics say aging cars -- especially police cruisers, which need to be ready for almost anything, including the possibility of a high-speed chase -- can see their suspensions wear out and wheel bearings begin to break down.

"For the risk that they're taking themselves, when they're doing those pursuits, I think it would be imperative for them to have very rigorous maintenance routines and schedules," said Eric Fantaski, operations manager for the D.C. area's AutoSquad mobile repair service. "You're running a higher risk."

High hopes
Projected percentage of patrol fleet with more than 100,000 miles or more than 5 years old:
Current fiscal year -- 24 percent
Fiscal 2014 -- 19 percent
Fiscal 2015 ?-- 14 percent
Source: Metropolitan Police Department

Last spring, in a letter to D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, Police Chief Cathy Lanier wrote: "Currently, 50 percent of the marked fleet exceeds the preferred replacement criteria. The wear and tear on the vehicles is beginning to show as cars are breaking down, downtime for maintenance is going up, etc."

In response, the council upped Mayor Vincent Gray's proposed funding for replacing police vehicles.

Last week, Gray proposed $7.2 million for replacing police vehicles in his new budget.

Mendelson said he believes the city was playing "catch-up from the Adrian Fenty years."

"What we discovered last year when we asked the question was that under the Fenty administration was that they deliberately changed the standard for replacement to cut costs," Mendelson said.

The Police Department estimates 19 percent of police vehicles will still be outside the preferred replacement schedule by next fiscal year, with that number dropping to 14 percent the following year.

"The bottom line here is we have to be able to get to the emergency calls," said Kris Baumann, chairman of the city's police union. "We're going to have to have the vehicles and the officers to get to the emergency calls."

As the fleet ages, fewer vehicles are available for officers as more cars need repairs, Baumann said. "We're down vehicles. That's the consequences of not keeping our fleet at 100 percent."

In an email, police spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump wrote that 336 vehicles are being operated past the "preferred replacement cycle."

As old vehicles remain, the force will need to continue to repair them. This fiscal year, $9.2 million was allocated for fleet management. The mayor is asking for about $8.8 million next year.

For its part, the Police Department says it requires a contractor that maintains the fleet to keep 95 percent of vehicles ready for use.

Public safety vehicles have been in the news lately. Last week, the city's Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department admitted to using inaccurate information that understated shortages in the department's fleet of reserve ambulances.

There is no indication that the Police Department has made similar missteps.

enewcomer@washingtonexaminer.com

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