Members of the Buffalo Police Department’s Traffic Unit are a familiar sight in downtown Buffalo, directing traffic during hockey games and other events at Key Bank Center.
But because of a police vehicle shortage, they sometimes don’t have cars with flashing light bars on top – or any vehicles at all.
That puts officers at risk, according to the police union.
“They’re dropping officers off at the corner,” said John T. Evans, Police Benevolent Association president. “There’s going to be a tragedy. Then they’re going to say: We have to do something about this.”
Last July, the city accepted a bid to purchase 15 new 2020 Ford Explorers for $35,637 each, plus at least $15,000 to outfit each with equipment such as flashing light bars, as part of the city’s 2019-20 operating budget, according to Lovejoy Common Council Member Richard A. Fontana, chairman of the Council’s Finance Committee. And Mayor Byron W. Brown’s $25.3 million capital budget recommendations for 2020 include $1 million to purchase and outfit 20 more new police vehicles.
“We will have added around 185 marked and unmarked cars in the last five years. We continue to rotate out damaged and high-mileage vehicles on a regular basis,” said city spokesman Michael J. DeGeorge.
Still, the 20 new vehicles are “nowhere near enough” to replenish the fleet, Evans said.
“We’re operating with one-third of what we need,” Evans said.
And because it’s included as part of the upcoming year’s capital budget – which funds long-term purchases – officers won’t see them anytime soon.
“We won’t see them until next year,” Evans said. “That’s insane.”
Historically, the purchase of police vehicles has been included in the city’s operating budget, Fontana said.
“The definition of ‘long term’ is more than five years. The Comptroller’s Office is saying they qualify because these are five-year assets,” Fontana said. “What happens if a car is totaled between now and year three? The asset would be gone, and we’re still paying.”
The city’s bond counsel confirmed that the city is allowed under Local Finance Law to bond =the 20 police vehicles, said Delano D. Dowell Sr., special assistant to Buffalo Comptroller Barbara Miller-Williams. But the bond counsel did not indicate whether it is a good idea.
When asked why the 20 vehicles were included in the capital budget and not the city’s operating budget, DeGeorge said, “This will assist in rotating the vehicles and keeping our inventory current.”
Evans says the car shortage likely goes back eight or nine years, when the police union negotiated for a pay raise, and a city official said then that the city was not going to buy any cars. Buffalo went a couple of years without buying new cars, and that caused issues, Evans said.
Maintenance problems have contributed to the shortage, Fontana said. There are fewer skilled staff at the police garage on Seneca Street, and there are not enough vehicles to begin with. That means police officers are less inclined to drop off the cars for maintenance and repair because they might not get them back or get another one, “so they keep them.”
For instance, there is a 64% engine failure rate in the Chevy Tahoes because the oil changes are not happening at the 3,000-mile mark, Fontana said.
“They’re going 8,000 or 9,000 miles. On a police car that runs all the time, that’s way too long,” he said. “If we do the 3,000-mile oil change on the new vehicles coming in, they should last longer than five years, but if you don’t they’re probably not going to last you five years.”
Currently, the Police Department’s five districts have an average of seven patrols cars available at a time, Evans said.
But at night between 8 p.m. and 1:30 a.m., when two shifts overlap, there are 20 police officers working. That means officers are doubling up, even riding three or four per vehicle, when responding to a call.
“If you have an arrest, then you have to call for another car,” Evans said. “It’s a nightmare.”
The patrol car shortage is causing numerous problems, he said. When officers are scheduled to attend training sessions at Police Headquarters or at SUNY Erie Community College’s north campus, they must be shuttled by another police officer.
“So now you’ve got one officer driving the officers, going back and forth,” he said, instead of being on patrol.
South District Common Council Member Christopher P. Scanlon also is concerned about the vehicle shortage after the PBA brought to his attention that the department’s Traffic Unit assigned to events at KeyBank Center was short on cars.
“There’s a lack of working cars. So officers are there without cars or with vehicles that aren’t adequately functioning,” said Scanlon, who has asked Police Commissioner Byron C. Lockwood to file a written plan of action for the Council’s Nov. 26 meeting.
Meanwhile, Brown’s $25.3 million capital budget proposal for 2020 has an increase of $2.1 million — or 9% — over last year’s budget, which is in line with former Comptroller Mark J.F. Schroeder’s recommended capital debt limits for five calendar years from 2018 to 2022.
“Our analysis of the ratios used to monitor the city’s debt levels showed a conservative increase was justified for 2020,” Dowell said.
The mayor’s 2020 capital budget proposal also includes:
- About $6 million for projects at parks, cultural institutions and recreational facilities, like a new restaurant at the casino in Martin Luther King Jr. Park.
- About $9.4 million for infrastructure projects and repaving.
- About $4.7 million to improve public safety and neighborhood services, including the 20 new police vehicles.
Brown submitted his capital budget earlier this month to the Council, which has until Dec. 15 to act on it.