Nearly a third of Montgomery County’s police cruisers are being pulled off the road in an unprecedented inspect-and-repair operation that has caught the attention of national safety inspectors.
Starting Tuesday morning, all 324 of the county’s Crown Victorias are being inspected at the department’s maintenance shop in Seven Locks after the steering failed on two of the Ford vehicles.
Cruiser recalls are not uncommon, said Lt. Darren Francke, but they typically involve non-safety issues that are handled via the dealership. Never in Francke’s 16 years on the force has the department had to launch its own 24-7 operation to inspect and repair so many cars.
“This is uncharted territory. The total loss of steering was such a critical issue that we had to bring the fleet down,” Francke said. “The majority of officer deaths are related to vehicle accidents, so we take any kind of vehicle failure very seriously.”
The problem traces back to July, when an officer who was about to respond to a call had the steering on his Crown Vic “completely fail,” Francke said. When the same thing happened to another Crown Vic last week, MCPD launched a probe.
Officials with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration came to Montgomery County on Friday, and Chief J. Thomas Manger made the unprecedented call late yesterday afternoon.
As of 10 a.m. Tuesday, 124 Crown Vics have been inspected, 30 of which were flagged for repair. Of those 30, two were “on the verge of failure,” Francke said.
“We’re very lucky we’ve avoided a wreck, an injury or anything worse,” he said.
With the NHTSA investigation pending, Francke did not want to detail the nature of the malfunction beyond saying that it appears to be caused by one specific part in the steering column that, when it fails, forces the wheels to switch into a default straight position.
NHTSA did not immediately return a call for comment. The agency oversaw a 36,000-cruiser recall of Chevy Impalas last month, The New York Times reported.
For now, MCPD is taking on the cost of replacement parts and man hours—but NHTSA’s findings could shift the burden to Ford.
“We’re expending a great deal of energy and money on this. We’re running a 24-7 operation right now to get these vehicles inspected and repaired,” Francke said.
Officers whose cruisers need repairs are riding along with other officers or are borrowing spare cruisers from their district station.
The inspections should wrap up by Thursday and the fleet of Crown Vics should be back to full force by Saturday, Francke said.
Dodge Chargers and Chevy Impalas make up most of the other two-thirds of MCPD’s cruiser fleet. The department has begun phasing in the new Chevy Caprice and the new Ford Interceptor. The Interceptor will eventually replace the Crown Vics, Francke said.