Safety of Officers Comes First

Sheriff declines to keep buying Ford model because of concerns

By ROGER RYDELL DANIELS
Lake City Reporter

Despite safety issues surrounding the Ford's Crown Victoria Police Interceptors, the car remains popular to law enforcement agencies - except the Columbia County Sheriff's Office.

Sheriff Frank Owens won't buy one of the nation's most popular police cars until a safety issue, the car's probability of catching fire after wrecks, is resolved.

"I am concerned with the Columbia Sheriff''s Office," Owens said. "Each department leader is responsible for their agencies, I am addressing my responsibility as the sheriff of Columbia County. Safety is the main issue."

The sheriff's office typically is allocated about $110,500 a year to buy new vehicles. According to the sheriff's 2003 budget proposal, the sheriff spent about $263,500 on them during this fiscal year, which ends June 30. The additional money came from projected budget surpluses within the sheriff's office budget. The sheriff has requested $110,500 for the 2003-04 fiscal year.

Owens said the nature of a patrol vehicle is that it is used for harsh duty and after purchase, it must be modified. These include electrical modifications, adding electronic equipment, drilling holes in major body parts, permanently mounting lights, cages, boxes and equipment in various locations throughout the vehicle and in some cases, immobilizing the driver and passenger seats. Such equipment also has been known to penetrate the fuel tank, causing the car to catch on fire.

Ford, which has about 85 percent of the police car market, came under fire last year after several cities and law enforcement agencies across the country filed lawsuits and voiced concerns about the risks of the Interceptor catching fire after high-speed, rear-end wrecks.

In October 2002, Ford announced plans to begin installing rubber and plastic shields around the gas tanks of the nearly 350,000 Ford Crown Victoria police Interceptors. Ford estimated it would cost them about $50 million to furnish the shields aimed at preventing items from penetrating the fuel tank. At the same time, the automaker announced plans to offer an optional $250 trunk pack cabinet to safely store sharp-edged, heavy equipment used by police officers.

Safety advocates and lawyers for wreck victims responded by saying the new equipment should be tested by an independent party.

Ford created a nine-member "blue-ribbon" panel comprised of Ford officials and police representatives, including Lt. James D. Wells, Jr., Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

The panel recommended the installation of gas tank shields and trunk storage kits, but not a fuel tank bladder some people had called for.

Owens said a local Ford dealer is currently installing the safety shields into the sheriff's office's 30-plus Interceptors.

"We don't know if that will be enough yet," Owens said. "We are taking advantage of what Ford is doing. They're doing it free of charge."

As for the new trunk packs, Owens said he doesn't know enough about them either.

One agency convinced by safety measures Ford has taken is the Florida Highway Patrol.

Capt. Ken Spears, fleet manager for the FHP, said the gas tank shields and trunk pack will significantly improve officer safety by reducing the risk that the gas tank will be punctured by items within the trunk.

Spears said beginning next week, the FHP will be the first law enforcement agency in the nation to receive the trunk pack, which is a drop-in box with a plastic shell made of High Density Polyethylene (HPDE). It both aligns police equipment laterally in the trunk and uses a Kevlar lining on the forward side of the box to reduce the risk of police equipment penetrating into the back seat or fuel tank in high-speed rear impacts.

Lt. Mike Burroughs, public information officer for FHP's Troop B, said he prefers the Ford police cars over others.

"Ford has always offered a great police package," he said.

Troop B, which covers Columbia and 10 other counties, has about 133 patrol cars with about 100 being Interceptors, including about 25 new ones.

Most of the new vehicles are awaiting equipment installation before hitting the road. Andy Fitzhugh, the FHP equipment installer, is handling the task.

Fitzhugh said he will install more than 150 wires in the trunk and under the front hood of the Interceptor. About 300 wires for cars with laptop computers.

The vehicle's performance record has not swayed the sheriff's office.

"A safety issue is more important than any good performance the car may have," said Sheriff's Capt. Jim Wells. "Safety is always our greatest concern. We want to make sure our officers have the highest degree of safety in and out of their cars."

Wells said the sheriff's office currently has about 37 Interceptors on the road. They also have some Chevy Impalas and some other types of vehicles, including a Dodge Durango.

The next round of vehicle purchases for the sheriff's office will occur after Oct. 1. Owens said they'll look at whatever vehicles are offered through the state contract.

He said the 2004 Interceptor will be looked at only if their safety concerns, such as the safety shield being installed at the factory before purchase, are met.

"All options are open," Owens said.

Lake City Police Capt. Bruce Charles said under the Sheriff's Association's state contract, each Interceptor costs a little under $20,000 and an additional $3,000 to modify.

Charles said his department has 32 patrol cars with 17 of them being Interceptors.

"These Crowns Vics are just as safe as any other cars, we have never had a problem with them, we'll keep purchasing them," he said.