- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 27, 2002

One of every five of the Metropolitan Police Department's marked patrol cars is in need of repair, but police officials have no plan to return the vehicles to the streets as the city prepares for Fourth of July activities amid terrorist threats.

More than 200 police cars awaiting repair are parked at the police department's garage at Montana and West Virginia avenues NE, leaving some police districts without enough cars for patrol, said department sources familiar with the problem.

Officers are cannibalizing some of the wrecked cars for parts to keep their cars running and are not turning in damaged cars for fear they will never see them again. Patrol cars with crumpled fenders, doors and bumpers can be seen in each quadrant of the city.

"We have some of them running with body damage. We aren't sending them down because they aren't going to fix them," said a police department source familiar with the problem.

"If they come in with a broken taillight, we'll take one off a wreck just to keep it going," another police department employee said.

Eric Coard, chief executive director of the police department's corporate support, said yesterday the garage has 31 cars with major accident damage that the department does not have enough money to repair and 20 more wrecked cars that are to be sold at auction.

"Some of those cars have high-ticket repair bills, and those are being delayed until we get a new [maintenance] contract and an influx of funds," Mr. Coard said, adding that he is trying to stay within his budget. He could not provide a figure for his budget yesterday.

A reporter for The Washington Times has observed the garage and its parking lots over the past two weeks and has counted 120 cars awaiting repair on the front lot alone. The view of the back lot is obscured by chain-link fencing, but many cars and car parts can be seen through the fence. Cars have remained on repair lifts in service bays for hours without any work being done.

Yesterday, the garage's front and back lots were full, and a traffic jam occurred when officers delivered more cars for repair. No security guard was present at the lot gate to prevent unauthorized persons from entering the fenced-in facility.

The police department's shortage of usable vehicles has occurred as the city's murder rate has climbed 24 percent, from 85 homicides this time last year to 105 so far this year.

In addition, Metropolitan Police will be on alert Wednesday through Friday because of potential terrorist activity during the Fourth of July celebration on the Mall. City police have been asked to assist the U.S. Park Police in crowd control and security.

Police department sources said wrecked cars, as well as those needing new transmissions and engines, have sat for months awaiting approval for repairs from officials at headquarters, adding that approval has been thwarted because of a lack of funds.

"They keep saying downtown has to approve the repairs before they can be fixed," a department source said.

Cars awaiting routine maintenance and minor repairs such as oil changes, tune-ups and brake work have backed up on the garage's parking lot because of slow service by the city's car maintenance contractor, Serco Management Services Inc.

Serco is expected to lose the $3.6 million contract because of cost overruns and failures to properly maintain the department's vehicles. Sources said First Services, a division of Ryder Truck, is expected to be hired.

Serco could be replaced within the month, a department source said.

Serco has been operating on a month-to-month basis since September, and the police department has implemented stricter controls that have forced Serco to control costs and make proper repairs.

Kevin Jerry, Serco's local manager, said he was not aware of any problems. He did not respond to calls seeking further comment.

Mr. Coard said he was not aware that a large number of cars are awaiting routine repair. When told the lot was filled, he said police officials may have to order Serco to work overtime to ensure that enough police cars are available for the Fourth of July.

"We'll probably direct Serco to stay this weekend to work to get the backlog down," he said.

Mr. Coard said an adequate number of cars should be available for the Fourth of July, adding that the decision not to order new cars has nothing to do with the shortage. He said officials bought specialty vehicles such as motorcycles and scooters this year rather than police cruisers.

Two separate audits have found that the police department mismanaged its fleet operations and oversight of the Serco contract. Officials had hoped that hiring a private company would eliminate many fleet management problems, but the department has had little success managing the contractor or getting enough money to pay for repairs.

The department has had numerous problems with its fleet operations since November 1999, when it contracted with Serco, but it has been able to cover any shortages by ordering new police cars. This year is the first in four years the department has not ordered new cars.

As a result, officers have had to continue using 1994 Ford Crown Victorias, which officials had hoped to phase out as front-line vehicles by now. All 40 of the department's reserve cars are being used on patrols.

Cars with defective air conditioning are being used on patrols, as are cars needing non-safety-related repairs.

"The districts won't send in cars even with bad brakes. They've got so many cars down, they don't want to bring them in for PMs [scheduled preventative maintenance]," a department official said. "They are afraid to lose even one more car because they are so short."

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