Ford to give police help with Taurus


The name of Baltimore City purchasing agent Brent Lehmann was incorrectly spelled in yesterday's editions of The Sun.

The Ford Motor Co. plans to send a team of technicians to Baltimore to resolve complaints that the city Police Department's $2 million fleet of Tauruses is troubled by failures.

The announcement from the Detroit carmaker comes as police departments around the country are complaining that the Taurus, which Ford began selling as a squad car four years ago, is expensive to maintain and prone to breakdowns.

"It has bled my budget dry," said Stan Niedzielski of the Annapolis police, echoing mechanics from Maryland to Omaha, Neb., who describe a litany of failures from broken transmissions to bad motor mounts.

Amid such assessments -- and lingering questions about the way Baltimore went about purchasing 140 of the cars -- Ford has issued conflicting statements about the Taurus' fitness for police work.

The company's customer service division in Detroit has said in recent weeks that Ford engineers never designed the Taurus -- the nation's top-selling family sedan -- for use as a police cruiser. But Ford's government sales manager said this week that the car was beefed up so that it could be sold to police.

"It has been fully tested as a police vehicle," said Jack LaBelle of Ford. "Believe me, as the government sales manager I would know. And I think you'll find if you contact some of our customers that they are fully satisfied."

But two of the three police departments provided as referencesby Ford reported problems with the car, and the third -- the Los Angeles County sheriff's office -- said it doesn't use the car as a cruiser.

"We test a lot of vehicles for Ford, so there's a lot of goodwill there"said Dan Riley, auto repair foreman for the city of Omaha, which boughtabout 140 Tauruses for its police. "But I can't say the car is something it's not. And it's not a good police car.

"You name the problem, we've had it with the Taurus: blown transmissions, front ends out of whack, wiring burning up in the --boards, brakes that don't hold up, seats breaking down."

In Maryland, police departments in Baltimore County, Howard County and Annapolis are abandoning the Tauruses for similar reasons after purchasing them in limited numbers for field testing, fleet managers and police said.

Baltimore's Police Department, the only major one in the nation to use Tauruses as cruisers, according to Ford, was also the only city in Maryland to buy them in large numbers without testing them on a trial basis.

Brent Lehman, the purchasing agent who oversaw the Taurus program, refused to discuss how the city came to spend $2 million of taxpayers' money on an untried vehicle over the past two years. He also refused to release contract documents, specifications and memorandums on the car. The Sun is seeking access to the documents under the Maryland Public Information Act.

"That is not public information," Mr. Lehman said. "The only persons who are entitled to see those documents are the companies that bid on the contract at the time. No one else has any right to review those papers."

But Baltimore didn't put the contract out to bid. Instead, it purchased the Tauruses under an existing contract between the Sheehy Ford dealership and Anne Arundel County using a state law that allows Maryland cities and counties to join each other's purchasing deals without conducting their own bids.

Documents released by Anne Arundel County show that police there bought 11 of the cars for field testing before expanding their Taurus fleet. Over the past two years, Baltimore has bought 70 under the same deal with Sheehy Ford and then followed that order with the purchase of 70 more.

Doug Carson, general manager at Sheehy, refused to discuss how the company went about securing the Baltimore contract. "We were awarded a contract, and we performed on the contract," he said. "That's all I can say about it."

Deputy Police Commissioner Michael Zotos, who sat on the committee that decided to buy the Tauruses from Sheehy after nearly a decade of requiring Chevrolet dealers to bid competitively to sell the department Caprices, said he does not know whether Sheehy or Ford lobbied for the contract.

"They never approached me personally," he said. "Whether they attempted to influence anyone in the Purchasing Department or the city Central Garage, I don't know. Frankly, that's who we rely on when we make these kind of decisions. They are the ones with the technical expertise."

Ken Queen, who oversaw the purchasing of the Tauruses in Anne Arundel County, said he recommended that his Police Department consider the car after attending a road test in Michigan in 1989 and listening to a Ford representative tout the Taurus as "the police car of the future."

Foreshadowing problems now being reported by other departments, the brakes on the Taurus test car failed during a high-speed run around the track, Mr. Queen said.

"Desperate is probably too strong a word," he said. "Let's just say they were seriously interested in getting [the] contract in Maryland for the Taurus. It was really a prototype car at that point, so we approached it very cautiously. It had a lot to offer in the way of fuel economy and special features, but it was untested in the field.

"We were the first in Maryland to buy it."

In its request for bids from dealers that year for replacement police cars, Anne Arundel included specifications for a midsize, front-wheel-drive cruiser in addition to its standard specifications for a traditional, full-size squad car.

But the specifications for the midsize car were drawn directly from the Ford Taurus manual, records show, making it all but impossible for any other manufacturer to compete for the midsize contract.

"I believe the Chevy Lumina was offered that year," said Mr. Queen. "But it wasn't and still isn't a suitable police car, in my opinion. We basically eliminated it from the bidding by drawing up the specs the way we did."

Mr. Queen said Chevrolet hadn't developed heavy enough cooling and electrical systems to allow the Lumina to hold up as a police car.

As a result, the 1990 Taurus was the only car that was allowed to qualify as a midsize police cruiser in Anne Arundel. And Sheehy's bid ofabout $12,250 per Taurus undercut the best price of a dozen other dealers -- including two other Ford dealers -- for any car of any size, records show.

Over the next three years, at least three other police departments piggybacked on the Anne Arundel contract with Sheehy, which continued to undercut the competition in subsequent bidding, Mr. Queen said.

The departments bought a few cars each for field testing in hopes of one day taking advantage of the Taurus' superiority in fuel economy over the full-sized Chevrolet Caprices and Ford Crown Victorias they had been using. One by one, they discovered problems with the car.

Meanwhile, Mr. Queen said, Anne Arundel was satisfied after more than a year of road tests that the Taurus was a good police car and proceeded to buy more than 100.

"The caveat to that is that we don't run our police cars 24 hours a day," said Lt. David Shipley. "And we tend to drive them in a suburban and rural setting. What works for us may not necessarily work for another department, especially in a big city like Baltimore."

Anne Arundel also assigns most officers to specific cruisers and lets them take the cars home at the end of their shifts, increasing officer accountability and decreasing wear and tear on the cars. Further, rookie officers -- who tend to be accident-prone and hard on cars -- are not generally allowed to drive the new Tauruses, Lt. Shipley said.

Like Anne Arundel, some suburban and rural police departments that have used the Taurus judiciously on well-paved roads report favorable performance and fuel cost savings.

Ted Swick, motor pool superintendent for the city of Lakeland, Fla. -- which Ford used as a reference -- said his Police Department's 114 Tauruses generally performed well after Ford technicians refitted them with improved parts. Lakeland also lets its officers take their cars home and seldom runs them for more than eight hours in a day.

Still, breakdowns have begun to trouble his fleet.

"Our officers will tell you we're having more transmission problems," he said. "But it's generally the same group of drivers who are tearing them up -- the younger officers. If you have a lot of young guys on your police force, you're going to have a lot of transmission problems with the Taurus."

The Baltimore Police Department has absorbed about 1,000 rookies over the past five years, triggering a sharp rise in the department's accident rate. It doesn't allow its officers to take cars home. It runs its police cruisers around the clock. And it provides only 18 hours of driver training to new recruits.

Stir the Ford Taurus into this mix and it becomes a recipe for disaster, said Captain Bill Law of the Hillsborough County, Fla., sheriff's office, who praises his department's 300 Tauruses.

"If you plan to run your cars 24 hours a day with multiple drivers, the Taurus is the last thing you'd want to buy," Captain Law said.

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