For city police, a disaster on wheels

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It was supposed to be the squad car of the future: a baby-blue cruiser with rounded edges that would present a friendlier image of the Baltimore Police Department. It would also be a smaller car -- with a high-tech brake system that would reduce accidents by officers.

Two years and 170 squad cars later, the Baltimore Police Department has declared the Ford Taurus a disaster.

A $2 million mistake.

"If I had to make the same decision today, I wouldn't buy that car no matter how big a price break Ford gave us," said Maj. John C. Lewandowski, who oversees the department's motor pool.

Representatives of Ford Motor Co. in Detroit said Friday that they were astounded to learn from The Sun that the department had purchased their car from local dealers for use as a police cruiser because the Taurus was never designed or marketed for that purpose.

"If they had called us in 1992 and told us they planned to use the Taurus as a police squad car, we would have been the first ones to tell them not to," said Joy Wolfe of the Ford Customer Service Division. "It was never intended to be driven as a primary police vehicle.

"It sounds to me like the department misunderstood the purpose that the car was sold for. It's the No. 1-selling family sedan in America, but it is most certainly not a police car. I don't want to sound critical of the department, but I have to say this is surprising."

That statement comes amid a departmental inquiry ordered by newly appointed Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier into the critical condition of the department's fleet -- at a time when police commanders are blaming the Taurus for their troubles.

The decision to buy the car was made by Mr. Frazier's predecessor -- former Police Commissioner Edward V. Woods -- and his deputy commanders, who rolled out the first Taurus in the spring of 1992 and declared it the answer to a host of the department's problems. It was friendlier. Smaller. Safer. Better.

But the department had ample warning not to use the car as a cruiser in widely circulated studies available at the time and in the opinions of motor pool managers in big-city police departments.

Never well-suited

They say front-wheel drive cars such as the Taurus have never been well-suited for patrol work.

"I think that is generally understood in every major police department in the country," said Ms. Wolfe of Ford. "It is certainly true that any front-wheel-drive car would be more expensive and difficult to maintain if you subjected it to the kind of hard use they get in police departments. That's why no one uses them for patrol cars."

That assessment has been borne out by a trail of work orders that track the Taurus' troubled two-year history on the bumpy streets of Baltimore.

The Tauruses -- which are 42 percent of Baltimore's 376 marked cruisers -- currently account for 63 percent of the squad cars that are down for repairs, records show.

Accident rate climbs

The anti-lock brakes that have helped make it the best-selling family sedan in America have had no effect on the department's accident rate, which has continued to climb over the past four years.

Further, the car's shortcomings as a police vehicle have had a ripple effect in a fleet cut to the bone by six years of tight budgets and one bad winter of ice-related wrecks, said Ben Franklin, chief of the city's Central Garage.

"These cars were supposed to be the backbone of the fleet," he said. "And when you don't have enough cars to begin with, you can't possibly absorb a problem product at the top of your line. They lost their margin of error just as the error was coming along."

Consequences

As one example of the consequences, Mr. Frazier said last month that he had to rent 40 family sedans to carry out basic police functions for the next four months until a batch of 72 new patrol cars is delivered. The cost: $59,500.

"I can't afford to have my officers and investigators station-bound when we're trying to shut down the drug corners," Mr. Frazier said. "The bad guys aren't going to wait till June when we get our new cars."

The new cars will be full-size Chevrolet Caprices -- the department's standard squad car for nearly a decade before Mr. Woods and his deputies opted to switch to the Taurus two years ago.

"That was the car that Eddie Woods wanted," Mr. Franklin said. "He emphatically wanted the Ford Taurus and that's what we gave him."

Commissioner Woods did not respond to requests for an interview, but Mr. Franklin said the decision appeared sound at the time.

The car was about $2,000 cheaper than the bigger Caprice. The Taurus also had been voted Car of the Year by Motor Trend magazine and was on its way to being the largest-selling family car in America.

'Police package'

Ford was offering for the first time a "police package" of upgraded parts and features on the car to attract buyers.

Still, as a police car, it was an untested product with no track record as anything but a family sedan.

The company was marketing it "strictly as a niche vehicle" for use by commanders and detectives -- not for the kind of grinding work performed by patrol officers, Ms. Wolfe said.

"Police departments that have used the Taurus for its intended purpose have had great success with it," she said. "But this is not a car that was designed for high-speed driving over obstacles and debris."

Michigan study

Ford only sells about 3,000 Tauruses a year to police departments, said company spokeswoman Carolyn Brown.

In addition to Ford's limited marketing strategy, ample evidence was available at the time to Baltimore police that front-wheel-drive cars probably were not as wise a buy as the Caprices.

The Michigan state police department, which publishes what is considered the most thorough annual study of police vehicles in the nation, has long considered front-wheel drive cars such as the Taurus and the Chevy Lumina to be unfit for its patrol fleet.

'Difficult, expensive'

"We don't pretend to know which cars best meet the needs of any particular police department," said Sgt. Bob Ring, who worked on the studies. "But we have always thought that front-wheel-drive cars were difficult and expensive to maintain, so we steer clear of them to begin with."

The Philadelphia, Chicago and New York City police departments all run full-size Chevy Caprice cruisers for the same reason, said motor pool managers in those cities.

"Mid-sized cars like the Taurus have lighter frames that really can't take the pounding they get in an inner-city police department," said Lt. Eamon McWilliams of the Philadelphia Police Department. "You run into constant alignment problems that burn up tires. The transmissions are up in the front of the car so you have major problems in any kind of front-end accident.

"And front-end accidents are what police tend to have."

Full-scale repair

Officer Paul K. Lamond of the Baltimore police, whose job it is to track officer accidents, estimates that 90 percent of the department's 250 preventable collisions last year involved some form of front-end damage.

He said that when a Taurus is involved, a crash that might mean a crumpled front fender to a Chevy Caprice often turns into a full-scale transmission repair that can take a car out of circulation for . . .

"Weeks," Mr. Franklin said.

'Long time to wait'

"Most of these cars are under warranty, so we have to send

them back to the dealers for repairs instead of doing it ourselves," he said. "We can fix the transmission on a Caprice right here in the city garage in a matter of days. But with a Taurus it can take a month for us to get it back from the dealer.

"And that's a long time to wait for a police car."

Compounding the problem, the Taurus' lighter frame bends in a collision and has to be straightened -- a major shortcoming in a department where cars are often involved in repeated crashes over their 100,000-mile lives.

"There's only so many times you can straighten them out before they won't straighten anymore," Mr. Franklin said. "And then you have to make the choice of taking them off the road completely or letting them stay out there chewing up tires."

Tires have been a problem on the Taurus almost from the moment they began arriving in 1992 equipped with special Goodyear tires designed for high-speed chases over 100 mph -- in a police department that forbids officers from engaging in high-speed chases.

Made of softer rubber, the "Pursuit" tires wore out on the potholes, cobblestones and railroad crossings of Baltimore in less than 3,000 miles, Mr. Franklin said, and had to be replaced within the first three months. The cost: about $27,000.

Extra expenses

Over the past two years, the decision to buy the car has triggered other extra expenses that have never been calculated, Major Lewandowski said.

Lost patrol hours. Added wear and tear on the rest of the department's fleet when the Tauruses were out of commission. Tens of thousands of dollars worth of spare parts and equipment that had to be purchased by the city's garage before it could service the new car. Special training to qualify the city's mechanics to work on the Taurus.

"We're basically running two repair shops -- one for the Caprice and one for the Taurus," Mr. Franklin said.

"And we will be for at least another two years, until the last Taurus gets wrecked or retired."

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