Police officers expect their jobs to be dangerous. They don't expect that danger to come from their patrol cars.
But a nationwide series of fiery collisions involving Ford Crown Victoria patrol cars has Kansas and local law enforcement agencies taking a closer look at what they drive and how to make it safer.
"You'd like to think your patrol car is pretty safe," said Kansas Highway Patrol 2nd Lt. Brad Bernhardt, fleet operations director. "We try to put ourselves in a pretty safe patrol car."
The Crown Vic, as it is often called, has been the dominant patrol car for most law enforcement agencies, including those in Douglas County.
"Right now it's our intent to continue with the Crown Victoria," said Sgt. Mike Pattrick, Lawrence Police spokesman. "We think this is the best car for our needs, but we are monitoring the situation."
Since 1983, 11 law enforcement officers have been killed as a result of rear-end collisions that cause Crown Victoria gasoline tanks to explode. Three of the deaths occurred in Arizona and two in Florida. Seven have occurred in the past five years.
Another six officers nationwide have been seriously injured in such accidents, according to law enforcement and consumer groups. At least 12 civilians have been killed in similar accidents involving the Crown Victoria and the comparable Mercury Grand Marquis and Lincoln Town Car during the same period.
Safety concerns caused Nueces County, Tex., officials last month to file a class-action lawsuit against Ford. The lawsuit seeks to get Ford, at its own expense, to make modifications to 25,000 Crown Victorias used as law enforcement vehicles in Texas.
The problem with the Crown Victoria is the placement of the gas tank, safety officials argue. They say it is located in the "crush zone" by the rear axle, an area designed to absorb rear impacts. Metal pieces are in positions that could puncture the tank and cause fuel leaks leading to explosions.
No Kansas law enforcement officers have been killed or hurt because of fuel leakage from the Crown Victoria's gas tank. State highway patrol cars have been hit in rear-end collisions, but they have not caused fuel leakage or explosions, Bernhardt said.
"I wonder about what was being stored in the car trunks and how they were configured," Bernhardt said of the other agencies' cars that have exploded. "Certain tools, such as a screwdriver, could be forced through the trunk and into the fuel tank."
Nevertheless, the issue of the Crown Victoria's gas tank has caught the attention of law enforcement agencies.
"Obviously we're concerned," Douglas County Sheriff Rick Trapp said. "We've been researching this, and we have talked to Ford about modifications. It should go pretty expeditiously."
Sheriff's officers drive Crown Victorias and Chevrolet Impalas, which are purchased through a bidding process. The department's 12 Crown Victorias are being taken to Laird Noller Ford, 935 W. 23rd St., for safety modifications.
Nearly a year ago Ford told its dealers to make the modifications, which include replacing a parking brake bolt, upon request.
Although police cruisers usually have special equipment that Crown Victorias driven by civilians don't have, the gas tank is in the same location. Rick Thompson, service manager at Laird Noller Ford, said modifications could be made to civilian-owned Crown Victorias, too.
The Kansas Highway Patrol has modified its fleet of nearly 500 Crown Victorias, Bernhardt said. That process began June 18 and was completed Aug. 1. Troopers were told to take their cars to the nearest Ford dealer or the patrol's Topeka maintenance garage.
Dealers charged $10 to $30 for the modifications, depending on the amount of time the job took, Bernhardt said.
Lawrence police officers drive Crown Victorias with the exception of a Chevrolet Lumina driven by a school resource officer and older, unmarked Chevrolet Caprices.
The department's Crown Victorias are being modified at the city's maintenance garage, supervisor Steve Stewart said. So are Crown Victorias used by other city departments.
Kansas University Public Safety Department officers also drive Crown Victorias, Maj. Chris Keary said.
"They will be modified as we can get them in," Keary said.
No one was available for comment at Ford's corporate offices. In June, however, Ford officials released a response to the Crown Victoria criticisms.
Ford promised to work with law enforcement to find ways of making the car safer while at the same time insisting that the car is safe. Company officials said police vehicles were more prone to high-speed rear-end collisions than civilian-driven cars because of the nature of police work.