Buffalo police handcuffed by ramshackle fleet
On any given shift, Buffalo police have just half the patrol cars they need to do the job.
“I would describe [the situation] as dire,” John Evans, president of the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association, told Investigative Post. “There aren’t enough cars for the patrol officers to patrol the streets and get to the calls.”
The cause: The Brown administration has not replaced police vehicles as frequently as the police department would like and national standards advise. As a result, the police fleet is aging and in disrepair. The cars that do work are driven into the ground, while those in need of serious repair work — or even just routine maintenance — languish in the understaffed police garage on Seneca Street.
The consequence: Officers often are stuck in their precincts, rather than patrolling streets and dealing with calls, because there simply aren’t enough working cars.
According to Evans, the police department is meant to have about 200 vehicles overall, including 20 working patrol cars per district. That’s part of the deal made back in 2002, when the police union agreed to go from two-officer to one-officer car patrols.
One night in early August, PBA Vice President Mark Goodspeed did a survey of patrol cars on duty. He counted 49, divided among the city’s five districts. He counted 50 patrol cars in the garage for maintenance. Another 17 cars were available to lieutenants.
A District, which covers South Buffalo, had just eight running cars, according to Goodspeed’s survey. Same with C District, which covers the central East Side. E District, which covers the northeast of Buffalo, had only seven.
Officers frequently double up on patrol, despite the 2002 concession, for lack of cars.
“We have officers three or four deep to a car” to get to a call, Godspeed said. And if an arrest must be made, a second car is needed to transport the detained to booking. That further strains a precinct’s supply of vehicles.
The shortage of cars results in long response times for some calls. Sometimes, Godspeed said, three or four hours may pass between a call being received and a car becoming available to respond.
In B District, which covers the busy entertainment areas of Allentown, Chippewa Street and the Theater District — and where police headquarters is central to those strips — officers who don’t get keys to a car might be sent out on foot patrol.
That doesn’t happen much elsewhere. Instead, officers sit.
Driven into the ground
The cars patrol officers do have are frequently overdue for inspection and routine maintenance because districts are loath to send a functioning car to the police garage, where it might sit in line for a week, or even two.
It’s not uncommon for working patrol cars — the ones you see on the streets — to be 3,000 miles or more overdue for an oil change, be without air-conditioning, or have questionable suspensions and brakes. One patrol officer told Investigative Post that the cars in his district’s lot frequently lack current inspection stickers.
“Some of the vehicles that are at the station houses, they’re not up to par, basically,” Evans said. “So they’ll sit. But your functional vehicles — which, right now, it might be six or seven in some districts — they’re running 24/7.”
The lack of routine maintenance leads to bigger problems.
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Neither Evans nor Goodspeed faulted the police garage for the condition of the fleet or the long wait time for maintenance and repairs, some of which must be farmed out to dealerships and private shops. Evans described the mechanics at the garage as “underpaid and understaffed.”
“It’s a mess,” Goodspeed said. “Mike Lakeman [manager of the police garage] tries to do the best he can with what he has.”
“There are some vehicles from 2006, 2007, that are still on the road,” Evans said, standing outside the police garage on Seneca Street, gesturing toward a boneyard of idle vehicles.
Some of the cars on the lot predate the Dodge Chargers and Chevrolet Tahoes the department currently prefers, and the call numbers painted on the sides indicate Evans is correct about their age.
“They keep putting band-aids on to keep them running,” Evans said, “because the city has not spent the money to provide vehicles for the patrol.”
Department officials and detectives in the various bureaus — homicide, narcotics, special victims, all speaking on condition of anonymity — assured Investigative Post that it’s not just the patrol cars. Unmarked vehicles are in sad shape, too.
A plan to make a plan
Despite repeated requests, Mayor Byron Brown refused to speak with Investigative Post about the issue. His office issued this statement, via spokesman Mike DeGeorge:
“We are aware of police fleet needs, and have been reviewing all of the potential options for investment in vehicles. The Administration said during the passage of the City budget that these decisions would be made as part of a larger capital budget discussion. Currently we are in the process of purchasing over 25 new vehicles and we’re exploring other alternatives to expedite the purchase of even more vehicles.”
In a followup exchange, DeGeorge said that police cars were eligible to be purchased with money raised through the sale of capital bonds. However, New York State’s local finance law and the city’s own capital debt management policy, adopted in 2018, indicate otherwise.
Capital borrowing is intended to fund investments in capital assets: buildings, streets, parks. According to state law and city policy, capital borrowing can be used for the purchase of some equipment — for example, fire trucks — but any investment must have a minimum useful life of at least five years.
Police cars, per industry standards, are meant to be replaced every three years. After that, according to national experts, the cost of maintaining a patrol car begins to exceed the cost of replacing it. With each subsequent year, that cost differential increases.
Investigative Post asked the office of interim Buffalo Comptroller Barbara Miller-Williams whether the comptroller felt the purchase of patrol cars could be funded with capital budget borrowing. The comptroller’s office responded by noting that the “period of probable usefulness” for a patrol car was three years, while the city policy in effect since last year required a period of probable usefulness of “no less than five years.”
The comptroller’s staff also noted that state law allows the use of capital budget borrowing for the purchase of police vehicles — but, again, state law also lays out that minimum five-year usefulness threshold.
A police tow truck or a boat? Sure. A transport van? Yes. A patrol car that’s driven 24 hours a day, 365 days a year? Probably not.
Asked how using capital budget borrowing to purchase police patrol vehicles complied with state law and city policy, DeGeorge, the mayor’s spokesman, said that Donna Estrich, the mayor’s finance commissioner, had determined it was “an eligible project.”
Asked for Estrich’s rationale, DeGeorge said, “the bond counsel has concurred” with Estrich’s determination.
Asked for the name of the bond counsel and the text of that opinion, DeGeorge responded, “No decisions have been made yet. City is looking at a number of options.”
Investigative Post also sought comment from Buffalo Police Commissioner Byron Lockwood. He did not respond.
Waiting on new cars
The police union is negotiating a new contract with the Brown administration. The current contract expired June 30. Fleet maintenance and replacement are not part of those negotiations, according to Evans.
“We believe that’s something the city should provide,” he said. “That it should not be a benefit, so to speak, to have a police car. That’s kind of ridiculous.”
If Buffalo followed the industry standard, it would replace 50 or 60 police cars each year — between a quarter and a third of the fleet. And, indeed, each budget year, the Buffalo Police Department requests about that number of cars from the Brown administration.
This spring, during this year’s budget deliberations, the police department requested 60 new cars. It got 15.
Last year, the police department got 11. They are expected to arrive shortly.
Buying a patrol car — which might cost the city about $50,000 — is more complicated than simply placing an order: It has to be outfitted with special equipment, which takes time and involves multiple vendors. Maintaining it can be complicated, too: Some problems require a car to be sent back to the dealership, which might then have to correspond with those vendors.
That’s why the industry experts who recommend replacing cars every three years also call for consistency in a city’s fleet maintenance and replacement program. What the mayor and the Common Council should do, by that logic, is commit $2 million a year to purchasing police vehicles, and place a standing order for 50 new cars every July.
Instead, the Brown administration has been all over the map, depending on the vagaries of the city’s cash flow. In 2015 and 2016, the police department received 85 new marked patrol cars, according to departmental notes, and 31 unmarked cars for detectives and command staff. (All of those cars are now due to be cycled out of service and replaced.) In 2010, 2013, and 2017, the police department received none. In 2012, just 11 car purchases were authorized.
In the last 10 years, the department has received 267 new vehicles, of which 42 were unmarked cars for detectives and command staff. If the fleet were being replaced every three or four years, as best practices dictate, that number would be between 500 and 600.
The up and down numbers, Evans said, make police officers feel as if outfitting them for the job is a low priority for the Brown administration.
“I believe the city is underfunding the police budget by design,” Evans said.
“They did budget 15 into next year’s budget, but again it might be a year off before we get them,” he added. “I don’t see an end in sight as far as when relief is going to come, this influx of vehicles.”
Asked why the delay, Evans said he assumed the problem to be “budgetary.”
“I think people who say the city’s finances are fine? I don’t think they’re being truthful,” Evans said. “Not from what I’ve seen.”