Austin police pull nearly 400 Ford SUVs from patrol over carbon monoxide fears

FILE - Austin Police Department vehicle (KXAN File Photo)
FILE - Austin Police Department vehicle (KXAN File Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Increasing concerns over carbon monoxide leaking into patrol vehicles has prompted the Austin Police Department to pull its nearly 400 Ford Explorer Police Interceptors from the streets of Austin.

“I’ve made the decision to remove the vehicles form the fleet immediately,” Interim City Manager Elaine Hart said Friday. “This decision is out of an abundance of caution at this point.”

“We’re happy that the city and department have seen the wisdom in taking these vehicles offline, and it was clear through [National Highway Traffic Safety Administration] testing that there were multiple problems with these vehicles,” Austin Police Association President Ken Casaday said.

APD experienced the first issues back in February when two officers reported problems with their vehicle. In March, an APD sergeant experienced a significant issue and is still on a no duty status. In the past five months, the city of Austin has had 62 workers compensation reports for carbon monoxide-related issues. Twenty of the officers tested positive for carbon monoxide.

The department has 397 of the Ford Explorer Interceptors in question. Of those, 237 are the standard black and white units which make up 61 percent of the APD patrol fleet. The remaining 160 are spread throughout the department.

The Explorer Interceptors on patrol will be replaced with other fully equipped, fully marked black and white units.

(KXAN File Photo)
FILE – Austin police Crown Victoria  (KXAN File Photo)

“At our busiest time, when we have the most overlapping shifts, if every single officer were to show up, we’d need 206 vehicles to adequately [accommodate] officers if we double up,” Interim Police Chief Brian Manley explained. “We have 206 vehicles ready to go.”

The move marks a significant shift in APD operational strategy by placing two officers in every car. Manley said APD will be tracking police response times to determine if there is any impact on the community by the move to two-officer units.

In order to free up vehicles, APD will move from a take-home vehicle policy for the highway enforcement division to a pool vehicle situation. Officers will begin signing out vehicles each day.

“All front-line police vehicles will be pursuit-rated and equipped with all necessary tools,” Manley said.

Supervisors, such as corporals, sergeants and lieutenants, will be driving unmarked units that are fully equipped with lights and sirens. Manley explained that only eight of these unmarked vehicles are equipped with in-car camera systems. So, the city will revise its body camera roll-out plan to issue those cameras to supervisors first when the program kicks off in October.

The process to changeover the vehicles starts Saturday as teams from the City’s Fleet and IT departments begin removing computers, weapons and other equipment from the Explorer Interceptors.

Friday evening, Ford Motor Company said it will cover the cost of specific repairs in every Police Interceptor with a leak concern, regardless of age, mileage or after-market modifications made.

The company, which says they have discovered holes and unsealed spaces in the back of some units, will do three things: check the seal of the rear of the vehicle where exhaust can enter, provide a new air conditioning calibration to bring in more fresh air during heavy acceleration and check for engine codes that could indicate a damaged exhausted manifold.

Concerns about unmarked vehicles and police impersonators

With an increase in unmarked vehicles on the streets, Manley acknowledged possible concerns of police impersonators taking advantage of this situation during the news conference Friday.

Each of the unmarked vehicles will have several lights, “It’ll look absolutely like a police car,” Manley said. “If you believe you are being pulled over and you are not certain whether or not that is a police officer behind you:”

  1. Turn on your hazard lights
  2. Call 911, give them your vehicle description and location and that someone is trying to pull you over
  3. Head toward a well lit, well populated area

Investigators looking into cause of carbon monoxide issues

The NHTSA announced Thursday it is expanding its investigation into carbon monoxide problems with Ford Explorers. The agency said they’ve learned the Police Interceptor version of the Ford Explorer is experiencing exhaust manifold cracks, which could explain the exhaust odor that has been sickening officers.

An exhaust manifold collects the exhaust gas from multiple cylinders into one pipe and delivers it to the exhaust pipe.

“If you develop any sort of crack in your manifold what you end up leaking is hydrocarbons,” said Eric Hagood at Muffin Muffler in south Austin. “It’s going to be bad news — it can leak into the car, it can be taken up through the air conditioning vents.”

Hagood also said he doesn’t believe a newer Ford Explorer would have a leak unless there was some sort of manufacturing problem.

The NHTSA expanded the investigation after getting nearly 800 complaints about the 2011-2017 Ford Explorer models.

The agency, along with representatives from Ford, have been in Austin investigating the vehicles. Ford claimed the problem is not with their cars but the modifications made to the vehicles after they are purchased. However, in a statement Thursday evening, the car maker said it was continuing to investigate:

Safety is our top priority. A dedicated Ford team is working with police customers, police equipment installers, Police Advisory Board members and NHTSA to investigate reported issues and solve them. Customers with concerns about Explorers and Police Interceptor Utilities can call our dedicated hotline at 888-260-5575 or visit their local Ford dealership.”

While APD is pulling Explorers from its fleet, Cedar Park police told KXAN they will continue to operate the SUV in their fleet.

“We’ve equipped each one with a CO detector, will continue to monitor the issue and evaluate future vehicle purchases accordingly,” Chief Mike Harmon said.

Dash camera video shows Sgt. Zachary LaHood, who is suing Ford over the issue, ask another officer to check his car when he realizes something could be wrong. As it turns out, there was carbon monoxide leaking inside his APD patrol car.

According to the lawsuit, LaHood was working as on-duty police sergeant for APD at around 1:30 a.m. on March 18, 2017, when he became nauseous, light-headed and had cognitive difficulties, headaches and blurred vision.

More than 20 Austin police officers have been treated and released after carbon monoxide may have leaked into their patrol vehicles.

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