NEW HAVEN, CT – Stop us if you heard this one: A detective hops in his unmarked police car. En route to a call, his steering wheel comes off.
Or maybe this one: A patrol officer makes a sharp turn at a corner and the computer inside his car goes swinging so wildly, that it whacks him and cuts his hand.
These scenarios might sound like the start of an episode of “Car Talk.” But New Haven’s police union definitely isn’t laughing.
That’s because the stories are true, and it seems practically every New Haven officer likely has a similar story.
For union secretary David Totino, it was the discovery that his squad car had a rotting gas tank.
“We were walking to our cars on South Orange, and I saw like a strange black residue near the car and I was like, ‘What the hell is that?’” Totino recalled Monday. “The gas tank was rotting. And there’s a manhole right there—the gas was actually leaking into the sewer.”
Rotting floor boards and car seats with metal sticking out of them are so prevalent that another officer said he often ends up with a hole in his uniform pants.
“Don’t take a picture of my butt,” the officer, who was wearing a pair of pants with visible hole, said with a laugh.
“We have paint peeling off cars, the equipment inside that keeps our computer equipment secured when you go around the corner, they swing at you and whack you pretty hard,” city police union President Craig Miller said. Miller is the cop who got hit so hard that his hand was cut by the apparatus that is supposed to secure his laptop in the squad car.
The men said NHPD police cars are too old, and it’s time for the city to do something before more than cops get hurt—and secondhand cars from Yale’s police department and nearby cities like Milford aren’t cutting it.
In fact, the union has filed with the state Labor Department alleging that officers are forced to drive cars that simply aren’t safe for them or the community they are sworn to protect. They said they filed the complaint after talks with city officials over the summer seemed to yield nothing in the way of new patrol cars.
It did not go unnoticed by officers that Police Chief Dean Esserman got a SUV. They also noticed when the four assistant chiefs got new SUVs back in 2014
“It’s disheartening because you sit with people in the city and they tell you ‘We’re working on it,’” Totino said. “They’re like, ‘Nobody’s going to get new cars, we’re going to work on your issue,’ and all of a sudden, lo and behold the chief has a brand new car. I’m not saying he doesn’t deserve it, but it’s contradictory to what the city said initially. So it’s like can we even believe them for anything else in the future?”
Miller said the annual budget for maintaining the police department’s fleet of vehicles has been reduced from $500,000 in 2008 to about $290,000. he said the mechanics are short staffed and have had their overtime slashed. They also don’t work on weekends.
“They don’t work weekends at all, so if your car breaks down in the middle of the street you have to call a city tow truck to bring you over there because they don’t have nobody working,” Miller said. “We have a lot of things that we complain about, but this is about the community. If you’re driving on a street and you’re driving a car that is not properly maintained, and you have something happen like a steering wheel or something falls off, who’s at risk? The community.”
“I think the first concern of the union is primarily the community,” union executive board member Florencio Cotto added. “When a resident calls with an emergency, can that officer effectively get there with the vehicle that has been given to them? These cars are in dire straits.”
Totino said cities of comparable size like Bridgeport spend more on the renewal and maintenance of their fleet. He said that city has the state Department of Motor Vehicles come down and inspect that fleet once a year as part of its contract; and such an inspection for New Haven would likely unearth a lot of problems that might be embarrassing for the city. The union called on to upgrade the fleet every three years or so and get police officers into safer vehicles, which they said would help with morale and retention.
We Really Are Working On It
Assistant Chief Anthony Campbell said when he first became an assistant chief at the end of 2014, the first issue that was brought to his attention was the state of the department’s fleet. He too had heard the story of the detective who lost his steering wheel.
“I have heard many stories of cars losing power,” he said. “I’ve received photos of the holes in the floor. The fleet has gotten so old that the detective bureau has not had new vehicles in 18 years.”
By the time he was able to start tackling the issue, the department’s budget for the for 2014-2015 was locked in at about $300,000, which had to cover the costs of not only repairing and maintaining the the 44 cars—most of which have between 60,000 and 100,000 miles on them—used by the department’s 430 officers. It also allows for the purchase of about 10 cars a year, which actually works out to about six cars net because the department loses on average four each year to age and accidents.
Campbell said he decided to prioritize new cars for the detectives who have gone almost two decades without new cars. He used the balance of the funds to buy used cars from Yale, which he said are “always maintained and well kept.” He also made the controversial decision to purchase his boss a new SUV—a decision that he claimed Esserman did not support.
Campbell said when Esserman became chief back in 2011 he inherited a 2010 Chevy Tahoe with more than 60,000 miles on it. By the end of 2015, that vehicle had more than 140,000 miles on it and was in fact breaking down regularly and costing the department more money than it was worth.
“I was pumping money into repairing that vehicle when I could get a brand new one for $30,000 that would be under warranty,” Campbell said. Continuing to put money into that vehicle “doesn’t make sense and it is not fiscally prudent.”
He said as for the decision to give assistant chiefs’ new vehicles, it was made before became an assistant chief. But he knew it was a sore point with the rank and file, so he asked his predecessor.
It turns out that Ford Fusions had been purchased for the chiefs and district managers. In bad conditions such as a serious snow, the cars were complete duds, leaving command staff stranded and unable to get to work. During one particular snow event, an assistant chief was stranded and had to be picked up by a fire truck to get to work.
That led to the purchase of Ford Explorers, which he said at “fleet rate” cost the department anywhere from $28,000 to $32,000 apiece.
He said city officials have come up with a way to put every officer in a new car in the next three years, but it will be up to the Board of Alders to sign off on it, possibly as early as February.
Campbell said city Chief Administrative Officer Michael Carter is pushing for the department to get about $450,000 to take care of its fleet. He also is pushing for an increase in the city’s master lease, which would allow the city to make large capital purchases for specific departments like police, fire and public works without expending a lot of money.
“An increase in the master lease would allow us to purchase 12 additional cars in March,” he said. The plan call for the purchase of 12 more cars, two more motorcycles and a tow truck once the budget increase goes into effect in July.
Board President Tyisha Walker and Majority Leader Alder Alphonse Paolillo, Jr. gave nothing away about their position on the proposed strategy in a joint statement issued Monday afternoon.
“Given our focus on the value of community policing as an effective crime reduction and prevention strategy, the Board of Alders is committed to making sure that our police department is properly equipped to protect and serve our residents,” Walker and Paolillo wrote in response to a question by the Independent. “We have and will continue to do everything in our power to make sure that our residents and our officers are safe at all times and we expect that the leadership of the department will do the same.”
Campbell said increasing the budget and the master lease would allow the department to replace its fleet in three years and insure that it remains under warranty. Another concern that he said that officers can expect to have fixed by this spring is the problem of that wildly swinging computer equipment, which is also know as a “mobile data terminal.” He said the department wants to replace those stands with new ones by the end of April.
“I understand the officers’ frustrations,” he said. “But behind the scenes Michael Carter has been working and pushing our cause to get this done.”