CBS 58 Investigates: How safe are the squad cars driven by Milwaukee police officers?

CBS 58 Investigates: How safe are the squad cars driven by Milwaukee police officers?

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- Milwaukee police cars go through more wear and tear and have significantly higher mileage that surrounding departments and some officers tell CBS 58 Investigates it’s a concern.

Officer Charles Irvine Jr. was killed June 7, 2018, the first line-of-duty death in the Milwaukee Police Department in 22 years. His partner was behind the wheel, as the two officers chased accused drug dealer Ladell Harrison. The officers’ car topped 96 miles per hour before crashing.

Harrison is charged in Irvine’s death, but the investigation into the crash looked at more than just the suspect who caused it.

“That was something that hit all of us very hard, and one of the first things we looked at was the status of the vehicle,” said Inspector Terrence Gordon with the Milwaukee Police Department.

CBS 58 Investigates obtained the maintenance records for the officers’ car. It was a 2011 Ford Crown Victoria. The city put more about $31,000 worth of work into the car while it was in use. At the time of the crash, it had more than 164,000 miles on it, but for a Milwaukee squad car, high mileage isn’t uncommon.

CBS 58 Investigates found 379 of the 800 cars have more than 100,000 miles, five have over 200,000.

“That’s pursuit driving, that’s 24-hour operation stopping and starting,” said Inspector Gordon. “That’s driving fast to emergency calls for service. It’s driving over on certain terrain; we’re not always driving on the street.”

CBS 58 Investigates got maintenance records from several area departments:

  • Milwaukee police cars have an average of 92,000 miles
  • West Allis police cars average 60,000 miles
  • Wauwatosa is about 49,000 miles
  • Waukesha is about 43,000 miles

But those departments have no more than 70 cars in the fleet, compared to about 800 cars in Milwaukee.

The Milwaukee Department of Public Works is responsible for the maintenance of police cars. They declined an interview for this story, but did appear before a Common Council Committee to talk about the problem last summer and said they are “fighting a losing battle because of the age of the fleet.”

“We are not replacing vehicles fast enough,” said Jeff Tews, the fleet services manager.

DPW tries to have 95% of police cars in working order, but that’s not always possible. In March of 2018, for example, only 88% of the fleet was in service.

“We’re seeing a lot more intensive repairs where we have to replace an entire wiring harness because a problem somewhere within the wires and connections,” Tews said.

And getting parts is difficult because Ford doesn’t make the Crown Victoria anymore.

But, Inspector Gordon says in the last year, the city has made a push to begin correcting problem especially in the wake of Officer Irvine’s death.

“That incident did allow the chief to put this issue into a broader focus as we began to discuss the budget and the status of our fleet,” Inspector Gordon said.

The 2019 budget includes $3.9 million for police vehicles, which could buy between 50 and 60 new ones.

“In any size budget, that’s significant, so I believe the commitment is very serious,” Inspector Gordon said.

Still to reverse the aging the fleet trend is an uphill battle. Inspector Gordon says a new, fully equipped police squad costs between $69,000 to $80,000. Meaning just to replace Milwaukee squads over 100,000 miles would cost, on the low-end, $26.5 million.

Changes to the pursuit policy could also mean more wear and tear on the cars. In 2017, officers were involved in about 370 chases. In 2018, under the new pursuit policy, officers were involved in more than 900.

And while high-speed chases are always risky, some worry old cars only adds to that risk. Several officers told CBS 58 Investigates off camera, the high mileage and condition of their cars is a concern but those officers and Inspector Gordon add it’s not going to keep them from doing their jobs.

“It’s a risky job,” Inspector Gordon said. “When we’re coming to work and we’re thinking about what we may do for the day, we’re not considering that our cars are necessarily going to put us in jeopardy.”

In a statement to CBS 58 Investigates the Milwaukee Police Association said,

“The Milwaukee Police Association has consistently expressed concern relative to the unsafe conditions our membership perform their sworn duty under. We remain strident to our advocacy toward obtaining reliable/timely replacement of failing equipment. The fleet of the Milwaukee Police Department is forever aging; the current practice of operating squad cars past their life expectancy is extremely disconcerting and unsafe – priorities must be reevaluated.”
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