Police brass overstate availability of patrol cars

130 patrol cars to respond to 911 calls? No, union says fewer than 50 are available because of sorry state of fleet.

Buffalo police officers have a lot fewer cars at their disposal to respond to 911 calls than their commissioner would have the public believe, union officials say.

Buffalo Police Commissioner Byron Lockwood told the Common Council’s Police Oversight Committee on Jan. 14 that the department’s dilapidated fleet had 134 working patrol cars available to answer calls.

The actual number is less than 50, said Mark Goodspeed, vice president of the Police Benevolent Association.

Goodspeed performs a regular survey of working patrol cars assigned to the city’s five police districts. On the evening of Jan. 14, the same day Lockwood addressed the Council, Goodspeed counted 44 working patrol cars assigned to the five districts.

E District — covering the upper East Side, including the Canisius College and UB South campuses — had just seven working patrol cars.

The police union says Lockwood’s count takes in all working vehicles at the department’s disposal, including vehicles assigned to special units such as traffic and housing, as well as detectives, district chiefs and command staff.

“It’s not patrol vehicles, I can assure you that,” PBA President John Evans told Investigative Post.

It’s patrol cars assigned to the districts that respond to 911 calls, Evans and Goodspeed said.

Lockwood’s testimony

Answering questions directed to him by South District Councilmember Christopher Scanlon, Lockwood told the committee the police fleet comprised 190 cars total, with 56 in the police garage on Seneca Street awaiting maintenance or repair. Of the 56 cars in the garage, Lockwood said, 21 would be out of service for a long time, if not permanently.

The vast majority of the cars sidelined are patrol cars assigned to districts, according to Goodspeed’s survey. He counted 49 district patrol cars in the shop.

“And eight of those are never coming back,” he said, because they are beyond repair.

E District, with its seven working cars on duty, had nine cars in the shop.

According to Lockwood’s testimony to the Council, five mechanics are currently working at the police garage on Seneca Street, along with a supervisor. Money has been budgeted for three more mechanics — at a salary of about $33,000 per year — but the department has not filled those jobs. Evans and Goodspeed characterized the police garage as “underpaid and understaffed.”

Lockwood also told the Police Oversight Committee the department needed 130 working cars to respond adequately to calls. The police union concurs with that assessment. Evans said each of the city’s five districts needs 20 cars to perform patrols and respond to calls for service. That number would also allow the department to meet the one-officer-per-car clause in the police contract — a concession the union made in 2003.

“Contractually, we’re supposed to be one-man cars,” said Goodspeed, who works the overnight shift in E District. “But every one of my guys is doubled up, and everybody’s doubled up throughout the city.”

The current police contract expired last summer; negotiations toward a new contract have failed and likely are headed to binding arbitration. Neither the provision of cars nor the one-officer-per-car clause have been subjects of negotiation, according to Evans.

“No car, radio”

The shortage is particularly acute in the overlap between the afternoon shift, which runs 3:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m., and the overnight shift, which runs 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. In each district, for five and a half hours, two platoons make do with fewer cars than are needed to outfit one.

The shifts overlap because those five and a half hours are statistically busy hours, when the department benefits from having extra officers on hand to respond to calls. The extra manpower is meaningless, Evans told Investigative Post, if those extra officers don’t have cars to drive to incidents.

Nor is the vehicle shortage felt only during the overlap. Evans recalled a recent incident in E District, in which there were simultaneously a house fire and a utility pole downed by a car accident. E District officers — and their patrol cars — were tied up for hours blocking traffic while the fire department and utility crews did their work.

“You had two calls that tied up every car in the district,” Evans said. “Now there’s no cars in that district for hours.”

A frequent result, according to union officials, are 911 calls for which no car is available. Another result is younger officers, lacking seniority, sitting at desks instead of running patrols.

A further consequence, Evans said, is diminished confidence among officers who are in cars, running patrols: If they encounter a situation that requires backup, will there be another car available?

“If there is a car actually out doing some proactive police work, and they get involved in something, they have no backup,” Evans said. “There’s no one else coming.”

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Niagara District Councilmember David Rivera — a former Buffalo police officer and chair of the Police Oversight Committee — asked Lockwood at the Jan. 14 meeting if there was a shortage of patrol cars for shift officers.

“As of right now, these numbers I have, no,” Lockwood replied.

Asked if his officers struggled to respond to 911 calls, Lockwood told Rivera, “I haven’t had no complaints saying that we didn’t have vehicles that were able to go out and answer the calls.”

Evans found that unlikely.

He and Goodspeed both told Investigative Post — last August and again last month — that nearly every evening, during the overlap, they hear the consequences of the car shortage on their police radios: Dispatch calls out a request for officers to respond to a scene, and the response crackles back: “No car, radio.”

“I don’t know if people are just complaining to us…because I get complaints almost every day,” Evans said.

Planned purchases fall short of need

When the Goodspeed surveyed the districts one night last August, when Investigative Post first reported on the woeful condition of the police fleet, he counted 49 working patrol cars assigned to the districts.

That is, the situation is somewhere between the same and getting worse.

On Jan. 16, Investigative Post asked Mayor Byron Brown to address the discrepancy between the commissioner’s and the police union’s assessments of the fleet. He demurred.

“I certainly can’t speak to any survey by the police union on police cars,” Brown said. “I can tell you our police commissioner and police management have put a strategic plan in place to purchase police cars more efficiently and more cost-effectively for the residents of the City of Buffalo.”

Brown was referring to a plan to lease police cars instead of purchasing them outright, as the city has done in the past. The city’s current budget, adopted in June 2019, allotted money to purchase and outfit 14 new cars. Instead of ordering those cars last summer, the department decided to explore the possibility of using that money to lease vehicles. The department received bids from leasing companies on Jan. 10. Captain Jeff Rinaldo, the department’s spokesman, told the Police Oversight Committee the department could lease 26 cars for the price of purchasing 14.

At the end of the lease period, the department would have the opportunity to buy those cars at a price set by the leasing company, based on wear and tear.

In addition, Brown and the Common Council agreed to borrow money in the city’s capital budget to purchase 20 new police cars. Capital spending is intended for infrastructure construction and maintenance, not the purchase of equipment with a useful life less than five years. Patrol cars, driven hard 24 hours a day, are generally considered to have a useful life of three years.

Nonetheless, Brown proposed to buy police vehicles with borrowed money and the Common Council approved. Taken together, Brown told Investigative Post, those measures would bring 46 new cars to the fleet.

The problem, according to union officials, is there’s a lag between ordering a police car and taking delivery of 6-8 months, sometimes longer.

The lease contract has not yet been awarded, and probably won’t be until later this month. The city won’t issue capital budget bonds until April. As a result, Evans doesn’t expect even those small measures of relief to arrive until autumn.

In the meantime, Evans said, the fleet continues to wear down, the backlog at the police garage grows and officers struggle to respond to calls.

Evans said the union has been raising the red flag for the last two years, warning the Brown administration and the Common Council that the fleet’s decrepitude was compounding.

He estimated it would take an immediate influx of 100 new cars to put the fleet in good order. He said 60 of those should be committed to the districts — to the officers who answer 911 calls and patrol neighborhoods.

“When they went, whatever it was, two or three years, without purchasing a vehicle, well, we’re paying for it now,” Evans said.