'Embarrassing' vehicles, shortage lower morale; city examining fleet
By TANYA EISERER The Dallas Morning News
Detective Lee Bollinger often spends as much as 30 minutes of his day looking for a police car. That's time he knows he should be using to investigate the robbery cases assigned to him.
At the Dallas Police Department's northeast patrol station, where he's assigned, there are not enough cars to go around for his unit's 18 detectives.
"I have to beg, borrow and steal," Detective Bollinger said. "I've had to postpone interviews and showing lineups because I didn't have available transportation."
Continuing concerns about the state of the Police Department's more than 1,100 vehicles recently prompted top city officials to order a thorough examination of the fleet.
The examination comes almost 2.5 years after The Dallas Morning News first reported that detectives drive some of the highest-mileage cars among the department's unmarked vehicles.
Detectives have long complained that many of the department's unmarked cars are so old and in such bad condition that they frequently break down.
"It's deplorable," said Sgt. Paul Keough, fleet coordinator for the department's youth services section. "It's embarrassing to look at the cars that we have to drive."
City Manager Mary Suhm said she realizes that it's time to turn attention to making improvements in the unmarked fleet.
ROUGH RIDE A few examples of the condition of the Dallas Police Department's unmarked car fleet from the northeast patrol station:
• Recently, a 1995 Ford Taurus with more than 113,000 miles on it was returned from the mechanic after having its transmission fixed. It still runs rough and doesn't shift properly, detectives say.
• One of the unit's nicer cars, a 1998 Chevrolet Lumina with about 43,000 miles on it, has a small problem, Detective Thomas Cicio said, "The air conditioning only works as long as you're not using the accelerator."
• Detective Lee Bollinger recently traveled to Gainesville, Texas, to talk to a robbery suspect. "There was a lot of debate about which car to take to make sure I didn't break down 70 miles out of town," he said. "I expect them to do their jobs and to do them well, and it's our responsibility to ensure that they have the equipment," Ms. Suhm said.
Ms. Suhm spearheaded efforts to overhaul the department's fleet of marked cars after The News first reported in October 2004 that one in five police patrol cars couldn't hit the city streets because they were crashed, broken down or worn out.
The city increased its fleet of marked cars to about 760 and has implemented a policy of replacing patrol cars after they reach 100,000 miles. But detectives say the problem with their unmarked cars is usually not so much high mileage as it is the vehicles' age and reliability and the fact that they are in chronic short supply.
The department has about 350 unmarked cars. On average, they are eight years old and have nearly 64,000 miles on the odometer. Investigative units use roughly 275 of those cars, and they are shared by more than 600 detectives and their supervisors, officials said.
A significant number of the cars driven by investigators are high-mileage 1995 Ford Tauruses or natural-gas vehicles that detectives say don't run well, have constant leaks, can't be driven far and are difficult to get filled up.
Detectives say finding reliable vehicles eats into their workday and lowers their morale, taking time and attention away from solving crimes. A 2004 City Council-commissioned efficiency study backs up that assessment.
"Given the high cost of compensating the department's sworn employees, it makes little sense not to provide them with the vehicles they need to be productive," the study states.
Top department officials say detectives' car situation improved slightly last spring when the department leased 25 Grand Prixs to replace 10 of its worst vehicles and to add 15 cars to the unmarked fleet.
"With our detective cars, they tend to not get replaced like they should," Police Chief David Kunkle said.
For the current fiscal year, the city also has budgeted $700,000 to buy about 40 new unmarked vehicles. But the department says that will only keep the current situation from deteriorating further and won't do much to improve the overall picture.
Lt. Ches Williams, commander of the Crimes Against Children unit, worries about the safety of his detectives when they're out in some of the unmarked cars.
"Keeping the cars on the road is always a problem," Lt. Williams said. "We drive the daylights out of these things."
The morale-busting vehicle shortage facing Sgt. Brenda Nichols, who heads the child abuse squad, illustrates the challenge.
Sgt. Nichols has five cars for 11 detectives and herself. The only one of the five that can be counted on for reliable transportation is one that the department leased last spring.
"There's not a week that goes by that I don't have detectives complaining that we don't have any cars for them to go out and do their work," Sgt. Nichols said.
Last month, the squad handled 98 cases, more than 1,000 Child Protective Services referrals and about 190 Dallas Independent School District referrals.
"Recently, most of us were driving our own vehicles because the cars were in the shop," Sgt. Nichols said. "We didn't have anything to drive. Everything was in the shop. It was extremely frustrating."
Detectives can only be reimbursed for mileage collected while driving their own cars, and they must get approval in advance.