City Paper is not for tourists
Like the Maytag man, William Brandon doesn’t have much to do. As a vehicle maintenance officer for the Metropolitan Police Department, Brandon is responsible—officially, at least—for arranging to have broken-down cruisers delivered from the 4th District’s Georgia Avenue headquarters to the department’s repair shop in Southwest. But since the start of the summer, he hasn’t spent too much time at the task.
That’s not because D.C.’s police officers have stopped crashing their cruisers—or overheating their engines, or blowing their fan belts. “The shop don’t have no room. That’s why we still have cars sitting up here,” Brandon says, rocking back and forth in his regulation black police shoes. “We check them daily, every day.” Brandon says the repair facility simply won’t take the cruisers. So instead of getting his cars fixed, he leaves them behind the station house. The vehicle maintenance officer has become the temporary junkyard manager.
As he weaves through the lot, between the unmarked and marked Crown Victorias and
past the fallen “Do Not Enter” sign that leans against the beige-brick enclosure, Brandon takes his time. He says he’s lost track of what works
and what doesn’t—it’s been a while since he’s checked on his cars.
As it turns out, more than a half-dozen cruisers currently bake in the sun. The cars are lined up like the department’s own version of the Cadillac Ranch: a transmission problem, an overheated engine, a busted electrical system, an accident, a blown head gasket, a car dead from unknown causes, its bumper duct-taped together. Some have waited for two weeks, others for months. A cruiser that Brandon says is still in use has a badly dented door and a left headlight held in place by two pieces of strapping tape.
Brandon’s not alone. Across town, Mark Greenwood, a vehicle maintenance officer with the 7th District, says the number of broken cars is the worst he’s ever seen. “Even if there were a shortage or a problem with the fleet, it never came to this magnitude—the pile-up of cars, no parts to fix the cars. Fleet has never had this problem, and I’ve been here 10 years,” Greenwood explains.
The reason behind the lack of car parts at the garage and the concomitant backlog of cruisers at the districts is that Police Chief Charles Ramsey has been planning to privatize the department’s Fleet Management Division since last May. But privatizing takes time—and in the course of waiting to transfer its car shop to a private company, the department has let it become a ghost town. It let its parts contract run out, thinking the transfer was imminent. Forty percent of the shop’s mechanics left through early retirement, a tempting option for employees uncertain about how long their operation would even exist.
Only 10 mechanics currently work on a fleet of more than 1,400 vehicles, including motorcycles. Bob Rose, the shop’s manager, says the department is suffering as much as an 8 percent backlog of downed cars—which comes out to 112 vehicles. In Richmond, a smaller fleet of 441 cars is serviced by four mechanics, although Richmond fleet official James Dalton notes that that city is privatizing maintenance as well. Dalton says that 10 to 15 cars—or 2 to 3 percent—are ordinarily down. In Newark, N.J., 22 mechanics service a small fleet of 385 cars, according to Michael Vanitsky, manager of the Division of Motors. Vanitsky says that 25 to 35 vehicles are usually down—a percentage similar to the District’s.
What for Brandon is a mere professional frustration is downright scary to folks like the department’s Patrol Service Area (PSA) officers, who work neighborhood beats. PSA units—which contain more than a dozen cops—typically get three cars per shift. “The basic question is why is there eight to nine cars sitting idle,” says one PSA sergeant, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “At one point, I had no cars. There’s some cars that have been gone for a month plus.”
D.C.’s police department has a long, sad history of transportation problems. Back in the early ’90s, during the District’s budget crisis, stories abounded of officers having to pay for replacement tires out of their own pockets, of cars without working radios, and of numerous cruisers too old to compete on the streets.
Of course, when Ramsey became chief last spring, he had other big problems, too—like finding enough cops in the first place. According to Executive Assistant Chief Terrance Gainer, Ramsey believed the department should be responsible only for law enforcement, not car repair. Fleet management occupied 17 sworn officers who could have been out making busts. “It is just more efficient to turn car repair over to the professionals,” Gainer explains.
In May 1998, Ramsey met with Les Davison, a federal contracting officer with the General Services Administration. The process of finding a private firm to maintain the cruisers started smoothly—bids for the takeover were solicited by the end of August. Davison says the department got three offers. It then interviewed all the companies and evaluated the proposals.
On Dec. 10, the police department awarded the transfer to Serco Management Services Inc., a New Jersey-based company that has contracts with several major cities for fleet maintenance. “We will have considerably more [mechanics],” Serco President Mike Walker says. “It will be over 30 on the team, absolutely.”
It sounded great. But the original contract didn’t guarantee that the department’s current mechanics would get to keep their jobs. Union officials lobbied the D.C. Council, and the contract sat still as the department and the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) worked out a memorandum of understanding allowing the workers to be transferred to other D.C. government jobs if Serco didn’t hire them. And as Ramsey waited for the council’s ultimate approval of the $3.5 million contract—which finally happened in the first week in July of this year—the current system fell apart.
Gainer admits that there were bugs in the procurement process. “Because we were moving towards privatization, the decision to hire more [mechanics] was slowed,” Gainer explains. “That affected the ordering of some parts….You are really caught in the middle. As a result it did have a temporary adverse impact in getting the cars back to the fleet. That’s unsatisfactory.”
Fleet Maintenance, located at 1501 South Capitol St. SW, makes a nice cruiser graveyard. Cop cars of various vintages and states of disrepair crowd the entrance to the blocklong facility. These are the lucky ones that made it out of the station-house lots and into the repair shop—or at least to spots just outside its entrance.
Behind a broken chain-link fence, cars wait to be auctioned or repaired. A lot of them are in worse shape than when they came in, thanks to dust showers from the South Capitol overpass above or to break-ins. One car had its battery stripped; another lost a tire to thieves. Mechanic Carlos Edwards says there has always been a big theft problem. Edwards adds that no one watches the cars or takes reports after robberies.
Inside the shop one July morning, roughly 20 cars fill the garage. Some sit with hoods open, ready for dissection; others are raised on the big Globe lifts. The scene is quiet—there are no radios blasting tunes nor mechanics killing the long hours chatting with each other. Someone has drawn a picture of a mule stomping a baby’s head on one car’s dusted-up window. Another car has been sitting for months. The mechanic who worked on it died of a heart attack. Only two mechanics are at work on the Thursday before Serco’s contract goes into effect.
According to Edwards, who is also the president of AFGE Local 3444, the mechanics never had a chance. Among other things, he claims, police officers are not taught to prevent basic car problems like overheating. And he’s steamed that the 15 mechanics who took early retirement were never replaced. Edwards doesn’t have exact figures on how fast cars have been getting repaired lately—it varies, of course, depending on the problem—but he says that at one point replacing a broken headlight could take as many as three days. “We had to do Band-Aid repairs,” he says, adding that they would strip totaled cars for spare parts. “Anything to keep the cars running.”
Edwards claims that his mechanics have to buy their own tools—costing each employee thousands of dollars each year. Gainer doesn’t know if that’s the case. “I would be surprised if the department didn’t supply the tools,” he asserts. “But I have to say, if it’s true, then shame on us. It’s our responsibility to supply equipment.”
Three days after Serco’s takeover, 1501 South Capitol St. is still humming at its usual slow pace. The same cars curb-sit outside. Edwards is at his usual work station. Serco plans to do a 90-day evaluation of the shop’s procedure and staff before making any substantial changes. No one knows who will stay on and who will be let go. In the meantime, officers will still be waiting a while for their cars. For now, nothing has changed—except the walls. “They painted the office; they painted their office; they painted the locker room,” Edwards reports. “It’s status quo right now.” CP