Suffolk Police have been forced to drive cars assigned to auxiliary officers as the department contends with a repair backlog that has 20 percent of its cars out of service, police and county officials said.
But the stopgap will soon be on its way out, county officials said Monday after Newsday reported last week that repair backlogs were forcing officers, at times, to double up in cruisers and patrol larger areas.
Vanessa Baird-Streeter, spokeswoman for County Executive Steve Bellone, said the administration first learned of the situation last week from a Newsday story, and she said it is "unacceptable" to Bellone.
Bellone has assigned Dennis Cohen, chief deputy county executive, "to cut through the red tape" and direct the department to use outside vendors to do repairs, Baird-Streeter said. It will be "cost-neutral" since they are already under contract and the speed of installing communications equipment in new cars will increase since vendors can do it quicker than county mechanics, she said.
Baird-Streeter said the county's Department of Public Works, which does maintenance on the police fleet, will increase work outsourced to vendors to "get the amount of police cars that the police department needs." Police need 20 repaired cars to eliminate the need to double up. Those cars will be ready within the next two weeks, she said.
The 20 percent backlog is a six-year high, with 195 out-of-service vehicles in the 968-car fleet, police said. Budget cuts in 2012 led to a shortage of mechanics, but the county hired three in October and recently authorized hiring three more.
The department has 19 cars assigned to the auxiliary -- three per precinct and one for headquarters, said Deputy Chief Kevin Fallon. Police said they could not gauge how often auxiliary cars are used because there is no usage log for them.
"Police auxiliary vehicles have been used in sector patrols because of not having enough vehicles there when they need them," Fallon said. "If the choice is between not patrolling the sector and using the police auxiliary vehicle, obviously we'll use the auxiliary vehicle."
Fallon acknowledged that the vehicles assigned to the volunteer force's 140 sworn auxiliary officers -- who mostly assist with traffic details -- do not have key equipment, such as computers. "It's not as efficient as it should be," said Fallon, who said officers in auxiliary cars use the radio to run license plates and warrant checks.
Legis. John M. Kennedy, of the legislature's Public Safety Committee, said he's concerned about officers driving quickly in emergencies using older cars without proper equipment.
"Not only are we not providing for our sworn police officers with efficient and adequate tools . . . but then the volunteers that we rely on -- a wonderful contingent, completely volunteer -- we can't even put them in a vehicle to have them assist us for a function," Kennedy (R-Nesconset) said. "It's pathetic."
Police contended the cars are safe, saying in an email: "The cars that go to auxiliary are cars that are considered in good to fair condition by the county's mechanics and are moved to auxiliary usage while they still have life in them."