APD prepares to get SUVs back as KXAN investigates impact on policing

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

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The first 10 Ford Explorer police interceptor units, out of the approximate 400 pulled from the Austin Police Department in July over carbon monoxide leak fears, are expected to come back next week.

In announcing the return Thursday, Interim Chief of Police Brian Manley said the department will be running their own tests for a week to validate Ford’s test results that the vehicles are back to standard and safe to use. Once APD verifies Ford’s results, repairs will start on the hundreds of Ford Explorers remaining, with the department expecting to get back about 20 per week.

In the month since APD parked its entire fleet of SUVs, the department has been doubling up officers in older Crown Victoria models. Right from the start, the KXAN investigative team began researching the effects of having fewer patrol cars on the street.

KXAN checked jail booking records for APD arrests, and the switch doesn’t appear to have had a substantial, long-term impact.

Before the SUVs were pulled, the department averaged about 87 arrests a day, according to the records. In the weeks since they were removed from use, APD averages about 81 arrests per day.

After a sharp drop the last weekend in July, when the switch was happening, the numbers rebounded quickly and have remained close to the previous average since.

“Initially, though, when we were pretty low on bodies, the calls were stacking up it seemed like at first,” Officer Chance Henderson said. “It seems to have calmed down now; we’ve kind of got the hang of it.”

After two years in a department SUV, Henderson now drives one of the older cars. Some days he rides with a second officer and some days he doesn’t, he said, depending on the staffing and how many cars are available.

Chief Manley said removing the Ford Explorers from their fleet impacted their operations, as they expected it would. For the highest priority calls, the chief said, it took on average 30 seconds longer for police to respond — from a 6 minute 47 second average for the first half of the year to 7 minutes and 14 seconds last week.

Interim Austin Chief of Police Brian Manley announces the return of some APD Ford Explorer units during a press conference on Sept. 7, 2017. (KXAN Photo)
Interim Austin Chief of Police Brian Manley announces the return of some APD Ford Explorer units during a press conference on Sept. 7, 2017. (KXAN Photo)

For the next highest level priority call, a 30-second delay was also seen on average.

The SUVs were pulled from the streets on July 28, 2017, after months of carbon monoxide-related issues, starting in February. The city received 62 workers compensation reports for carbon monoxide problems. At one point the Austin Police Association told its members to drive on patrol with their windows down.

Ford Motor Company said in July they would cover the cost of repairs for every police interceptor with a leak concern, regardless of age, mileage or after-market modifications. The company said they discovered holes and unsealed spaces in the back of some units.

“We are still looking at many months before we have the entire fleet back,” Manley said Thursday.

As the repaired vehicles come back to the department, the police chief said, they will work out how to re-deploy them and how best to start returning officers to one-person patrols.

“I think that they’ll be glad to be back in this vehicle and to be back out in single-officer units,” Manley said.

“If they operate without getting guys sick and injured, yeah,” Henderson said, “do it.” Four officers are still on no-duty status because of exposure to carbon monoxide. Henderson hopes the decision to bring back the SUVs, once the city has inspected them, isn’t made too hastily.

“I think if they’re moving them back in,” he said, “this has been planned out, not rushed I’d imagine.”

Manley also said the department will be buying equipment for each of its substations that will test air quality in vehicles. They’ll use the equipment to make sure the repairs are holding while they re-deploy the SUVs.

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