Pittsburgh's chief complains of a dire lack of vehicles

P1 driving expert Travis Yates responds: "When city budgets are low, the police are an easy target. Cars are an expensive part of that budget so we often see vehicle cutbacks. It appears that Pittsburgh does not assign each of their officers a car. Driving a car on patrol, 24 hours a day is very bad on the car. While it would cost a lot to add enough cars to assign individual officers, the city would see an incredible savings in the future on maintenance and replacement costs.

"All departments benefit from a dedicated tax to pay for equipment such as this. If Pittsburgh had a dedicated tax that bought cars every year, the politicians couldn't touch it and cars would be guaranteed. I believe this is what the citizens would want: Their officers responding to them, in cars that are reliable."

By Rich Lord
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

PITTSBURGH Some Pittsburgh police officers have to walk to their sectors or drive their personal cars on duty, Chief Nate Harper told City Council yesterday in a budget hearing that focused on the decrepitude of cruisers and patrol wagons.

In a rare airing of policy differences, city Finance Director Scott Kunka countered that the administration is buying 30 vehicles a year and trying to catch up following years of neglect of the police fleet.

"Thirty is only fulfilling half" of the bureau's immediate need, Chief Harper said.

An internal Police Bureau report completed last month found that the force, expected to reach 900 officers soon, needs 312 vehicles. On paper, it has 267 vehicles, but 67 of those are permanently out of service, and some have been auctioned off.

"How do you operate when your fleet is 25 percent down?" Chief Harper asked.

Twenty to 30 police cars are in the shop at a given time, putting the bureau's available cars at around 175.

The report says that 34 cars will reach the end of their useful life within six months. Zone operations will be "pushed beyond its limits" next year and the chief "will then have to make decisions about which units I will have to start temporarily shutting down."

Chief Harper said that Zone 3, based in the South Side, has 12 cars in the shop. That forces some officers to walk to their sectors, limiting their ability to respond to emergencies. That zone is supposed to pass some of its vehicles on to the West End station when it reopens next month.

Zone 1 in the North Side, Zone 2 from Downtown to Lawrenceville and the Major Crimes Unit all have around two-thirds of the cars they need, according to the bureau's report.

The six Drug Abuse Resistance Education officers have to drive their own cars to the 50 schools in which they make presentations, Chief Harper said.

"Over the past three years, there has been approximately $4.5 million spent on police vehicles," said Mr. Kunka. That bought 90 vehicles, he said. A merger of the city force with the Pittsburgh Housing Authority police brings in an additional 15 or 20 vehicles, he said.

The car problems come as the city accumulates nearly $100 million in savings, most of which will be set aside for road, bridge and other infrastructure work.

The city is "using the police department to develop more funds," by not spending budgeted money, said Fraternal Order of Police President James Malloy.

The union head called the city detective vehicles "ratty" yesterday.

"Some of these cars are up in the 150 [thousand miles range] and they're still on the road," he said.

Council seemed receptive to the concerns.

"We need to work with the finance director of the administration to help with that request," said Councilman Jim Motznik.

Copyright 2007 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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