Police now press for safer vans The department cut 5 years off its plan to upgrade the wagons. Just a month earlier, questions had been raised.

Posted: June 03, 2001

The Police Department had been moving slowly to make its fleet of patrol wagons safer.

Now, it's rushing to get the job done.

Most of the 86 wagons - specially modified Ford cargo vans - have no seat belts or padding. Suspects, who ride with their hands cuffed behind the back, have suffered serious injuries when they were tossed around during rough wagon rides.

This year, the Police Department began phasing in safer new models. The city bought 10 vans with seat belts, foam padding and seat dividers to prevent passengers from sliding around.

Police-fleet managers expected to add 10 similarly equipped wagons each year as part of the department's routine replacement of vehicles.

At that pace, it would take until 2008 to get all the older wagons off the street.

"We're going to phase them in at 10 a year because they're kind of expensive," Lt. Eamon McWilliams of the department automotive-services bureau said.

That was in February.

At the time, The Inquirer was questioning police and city officials about a pattern of wagon injuries the newspaper had documented.

Officials now say they will overhaul the fleet on an accelerated schedule.

During the coming fiscal year, instead of 10 new vans, the city will buy 25 - each with seat belts and the other safety gear. In addition, 25 wagons already in the fleet will be retrofitted with the same equipment. The total cost: about $900,000.

It is unclear what prompted the change.

Deputy Police Commissioner Thomas J. Nestel said the department submitted a budget request in December for money to buy 25 vans and retrofit others.

Nestel said he got word in the spring, as details of the new city budget were being made final, that the department would receive the necessary funding.

Joseph Martz, who oversees all city departments as the Street administration's managing director, and Riley Harrison, head of the city's fleet-management office, did not respond to phone messages or written requests for comment on the funding decision.

McWilliams said he was pleasantly surprised to learn of the change in plans.

"The city was able to come up with additional funding, so we said, 'Go for it,' " McWilliams said.

Equally surprised was Mark Sundy, operations manager of Havis Shields Equipment Corp. of Warminster, which modifies the wagons for use by the Police Department.

Sundy has worked with the city for several years, researching safety options for the wagons. He was expecting to equip 10 new vehicles per year with seat belts, padding and seat dividers.

In March, Sundy said, he got a call from city officials informing him that they now wanted to "do what it takes" to upgrade the whole fleet "at full throttle."

The first of the older wagons to be overhauled was delivered to Havis Shields last week.

"The request from them is to get up and rolling and outfit the vans as soon as possible," Sundy said.

Nestel said he hoped to secure more money to replace or retrofit the remaining wagons by 2003.

"We will get it done as fast as we can," he said. "Even one injury is extremely serious and important."

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