Safety of Squad Cars City Plans to Buy Questioned


 Chicago Sun-Times

May 30, 2003

BY FRANK MAIN AND FRAN SPIELMAN Staff Reporters
 

The head of Chicago's police union urged the city Thursday to reconsider its decision to buy a fleet of Crown Victoria police cars after a Missouri state trooper's fiery death in one of the cars renewed safety concerns.

Mark Donahue, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, said he believes fuel tanks of the Crown Victoria Police Interceptor are vulnerable to exploding when the cars are rear-ended at high speeds.

"I would say the FOP is very concerned about the city purchasing a new fleet of Crown Vics until Ford rectifies this problem," Donahue said. "Some more thought should have gone into giving out this contract."

But a city purchasing official said it plans to proceed with purchases from a suburban dealer.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is calling on the federal government to reopen an investigation of the car. Last year, a probe concluded that cars with the Crown Victoria fuel system caught fire in 8 percent of rear-end crashes, compared with 6.3 percent with the Chevrolet Caprice fuel system.

Fourteen officers have died in crashes since 1983 when their Crown Victorias' gas tanks caught fire after being hit from behind. Ford contends the car is safe--and that federal investigators found no defects. But in September, the company started retrofitting older models with plastic shields to protect the gas tanks.

Such a shield was on the Crown Victoria that 25-year-old Missouri trooper Michael Newton was killed in last week.

"I don't know if we confirmed whether the vehicle was equipped with the shield," said Francine Romine, a Ford Motor Co. spokeswoman. "There is nothing that can eliminate every single variable. These shields are an enhancement to the vehicle's safety, not a fix."

The Chicago Sun-Times reported last month that the city ordered almost 2,500 marked and unmarked Chicago police cars from Sutton Ford in Matteson under a $49.2 million contract that bypassed the low bidder. The dealer's president, Nathaniel Sutton, could not provide a breakdown of how many of the cars are Crown Victoria Police Interceptors. Any Crown Victoria Police Interceptors will have the plastic shields in place, he said.

Since November, Chicago police have been retrofitting the department's current fleet of 2,400 Crown Victorias--whose models date to 1996--with the plastic shields at Ford's expense, police spokesman David Bayless said. The process is about 80 percent complete, he said.

However, cars without shields have remained in service until retrofitted, Bayless said.

"There is obviously an awareness in this department that it is a potential hazard, so we are taking steps to address it," he said, adding that he knew of no gas-tank explosions involving Chicago's police cars.

The Louisiana attorney general issued a moratorium in January on purchases of the Crown Victoria Police Interceptor.