Cop car shortage sidelines new officers

Ramshackle fleet often leaves newer officers stuck on desk duty, slowing response time to citizen calls

Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown and the Common Council have shortchanged the Buffalo Police Department’s police fleet in recent years. They’ve replaced cars at less than half the rate the police department has lobbied for, and which is considered best practice by experts in fleet maintenance.

Last week, Investigative Post reported on the sorry state of affairs. The police department has too few patrol cars, we found, and many of the cars that are in service are in poor repair.

The situation, said John Evans, president of the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association, is “dire.”

“There aren’t enough cars for the patrol officers to patrol the streets and get to the calls,” Evans told Investigative Post.

Among the consequences:

  • Long wait times for police to respond to citizen calls.
  • Officers riding two, three, or even four to a car to respond to calls.
  • Cars driven to the point of breaking down for lack of routine maintenance, because districts can’t afford to have working cars sitting in line at the police garage, which Evans described as “underpaid and understaffed.”
  • Officers sitting in station houses, doing work other staff are already paid to do, instead of patrolling the streets or responding to calls.

In a followup interview, Evans raised another potential consequence: It will take younger officers longer to rack up on-the-job experience, because working patrol cars are doled out on the basis of seniority. If there aren’t enough cars to go around, it’s likely that the newest officers — the ones who need experience most — will spend a good portion of their shifts behind a desk.

“It’s gonna take them years, I’d say years longer, to gain that experience because of that,” Evans said.

New recruits, such as the 29 that the mayor swore into office at the beginning of August, will get their share of time on patrol: In their first three months on the job, they are required to log a certain number of hours under the supervision of a field training officer — an experienced cop who has been certified by the state — in order to gain their state certification. Logging those hours for rookies is a high priority.

Once that training period is over, the rookies fall into their natural place at the bottom of the pecking order. The shift lieutenant gets the best car. The most senior officer on shift gets next pick. And on down the line.

“It’s very frustrating, especially for the younger officers,” Evans said. “They come to work all revved up, ready to go, and, ‘Oh, you’re on the desk tonight.’ ‘Again?’ ‘Yeah, again. Sorry, we have no cars.’ ”

A spokesman for the Buffalo Police Department, Captain Jeff Rinaldo, acknowledged that the shortage of cars is a problem. But he disputed Evans’s characterization of the situation as “dire.”

“I believe we’ll have an appropriate number of vehicles for the on-the-job training they’re referring to,” Rinaldo said.

“Are we at a point where I don’t have enough cars in the district for officers to respond to 911 calls? No, we’re not there. Do I think we’re on the verge of being there? No,” Rinaldo said.

“Are we limited in our resources?” he added. “Are there times when we don’t necessarily have enough cars to do everything that we’d like to do? Absolutely.”

Rinaldo said eight new patrol cars, ordered nearly a year ago, are being deployed this week, and three more should arrive shortly. The police department will order 14 more under this year’s city budget. (The department asked the mayor and the Common Council for money to buy 60 new cars.) Those cars will take a long time — certainly six months, likely longer — to be outfitted and ready for duty.

Rinaldo said the department was adding mechanics at the police garage on Seneca Street, to reduce the turnaround time for vehicle maintenance.

“Again, we we’re doing the best we can,” Rinaldo said. “We’re not saying there’s not an issue.”

Mike DeGeorge, spokesman for the mayor’s office, said the appropriation for police cars competed with appropriations for body cameras and tasers in this year’s budget.

When asked where cars ought to rank among those items, from the perspective of a patrol officer, Evans said, “Number one. I mean, that should hold the highest priority.”

Evans disputed statements by officials who say the shortage of cars isn’t as serious as he has claimed.

“They’re not the individuals that are out answering the calls and trying to apprehend suspects and the like with inferior equipment,” he said.

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Rinaldo and DeGeorge said the city was researching the possibility of leasing cars instead of purchasing them outright.

Leasing would allow the cash-strapped city to buy new cars with little money upfront. But it could mean big end-of-lease payments if cars are damaged or lose too much residual value over a couple years of hard use. Nationwide, leased police fleets work well for smaller municipalities, where the vehicles aren’t as hard-used, and for vehicles other than patrol cars, which are a city department’s workhorses.

“I don’t think the police department would make a recommendation to go to a 100 percent leasing program until we try it,” Rinaldo said. “I’m in favor of attempting a pilot program — providing that the financial side of it makes sense, and we don’t end up in a situation where we’re upside down.”

Rinaldo said he was optimistic the mayor’s office would find a way “relatively soon” to make a large purchase of new patrol cars. Evans said the rank-and-file are well beyond caring where or how the city acquires working vehicles. They’d take the gently used castoffs from suburban police departments.

“I mean, at this point, we’d take anything,” Evans said.