Twenty percent of the Suffolk County Police Department's car fleet is out of service due to a repair backlog, at times forcing officers to double up in cruisers and patrol larger areas, police and county officials say.
Of the 195 out-of-service vehicles in the 968-car fleet, 51 haven't been used for more than 90 days -- some more than 150 days, according to a March 13 memo from Police Commissioner Edward Webber to the Suffolk County Legislature's Public Safety Committee.
The prolonged backlog represents a six-year high and has delayed newly purchased police cars that are awaiting mechanical adjustments from hitting the streets, officials said. The issue is also raising concerns among Suffolk legislators, who are demanding the county take action.
"You hear it on the street, 'We're doubling up tonight because there's not enough cars,'" said Legis. Kate Browning (WF-Shirley), chairwoman of the Public Safety Committee. "I do think there's a public safety problem when you're not having the sufficient amount of cars out on the street . . . so you just have to hope that it's a slow night."
Suffolk Police Chief Mark White, who oversees support services, said the backlog has had "minimal effect" on policing. Officers have had to double up "less than a half-dozen times," he said, most recently in late summer.
Shortage of mechanics
Tom Melito, Suffolk's deputy county executive for performance management -- who acknowledged last week that the backlog is reaching a "crisis" level -- said the administration hired three mechanics in October by adding $135,000 to the county budget and recently authorized hiring three more to help ease the problem.
"We're here to take a look at it to make it better as quickly as possible," Melito said. "The first thing people say in a situation like this is, 'We need more people,' but until you actually look at the information, you cannot make those determinations."
Pressed on Melito's characterization of the situation as a crisis, White said, "If the situation continues worsening, we'd be moving toward a crisis. It's on that edge that if we keep moving in the wrong direction, we'd have a problem."
The county Department of Public Works, which does vehicle maintenance for the police department, was down 11 of its 39 auto mechanics before the recent authorizations for six new hires.
The workforce was slimmed down because of nearly 300 job cuts in mid-2012, when officials projected a three-year budget shortfall of more than $500 million. About 1,000 Suffolk workers have left through layoffs or retirement since County Executive Steve Bellone took office in January 2012.
White said there are significantly fewer mechanics assigned to police vehicles than there were in the 1990s.
Before January 1997, the police department had its own mechanics department, but it merged then with the DPW.
"They're trying to do the job in a very, very difficult fiscal environment," White said. "We ask that they prioritize our vehicles and they do whenever they can. I think they try to do the best they can in getting them out for us."
Awaiting order of new cars
In addition to the broken-down cars, dozens of new police cars are in county parking lots awaiting body and technical work before they can be put into use, the Webber memo said. Of 40 cars ordered, 22 have been placed into service, but the 18 remaining still require the installation of communication equipment such as radios, printers and computers, the memo said. The projected completion date for all the new cars is mid-May.
A new order of 24 cars has been delivered, but won't be ready until the end of August, the Webber memo said. In addition, it noted the Radio Shop, which outfits the cars with communication equipment, can complete an average of two vehicles per week, "barring any other emergency repairs needed for equipment already in service."
"It's totally unacceptable," Legis. John M. Kennedy Jr. (R-Nesconset) said of the repair backlogs and delays in deploying new fleet vehicles. "To me it seems to be a profound lack of understanding for how to gear up, process and stock and do something as simple as provide our law enforcement people with transportation."
In Nassau, police spokesman Insp. Kenneth Lack said each precinct has spare cars and an assigned mechanic who handles oil changes, flat tires and other minor fixes. Bigger jobs are handled by the department's Fleet Service Bureau, he said.
"We are not experiencing any shortages [of cars] at this time," said Lack, who could not immediately provide a number of out-of-service vehicles. "The cars out of service are absolutely not affecting our response times."