Herald Staff Writer
“You can’t make the check engine light go away.”
That was the prognosis made by Lt. James Dawson about one of the Barberton Police Department’s cruisers that’s seen better days. “It’s one of the newer cars. It has 110,000 miles on it,” he said.
The manufacturer calculates emergency fleet vehicle mileage based on idle hours, which puts the car’s mileage closer to 650,000. (For every hour the vehicle idles, it accumulates 33 miles of driving).
Car 17 has 839,000 miles; car 19, 866,000 miles. “The least mileage car we have has 435,000 miles,” said Dawson. “They run 24/7. When someone is getting out of that car, another is getting in it. These cars are infrastructure, and without it, it’s harder to do our job,” he said.
According to Dawson, who oversees the administration of the fleet, “Our cruisers are all due to be replaced, and that’s why they’re always breaking down.”
Because the department has not received authorization for several years from the Barberton City Council to purchase new vehicles, the problems have multiplied. The upholstery is bursting at the seams, and many of the cars have suspension, braking, power steering or electrical issues.
Sgt. Robert Lynn of the department’s detective bureau described a recent incident. “Somebody was given a call on a domestic. He goes out there, gets in the car and it’s totally dead. Can’t respond to the call. And that’s not the first time it happened.”
The situation has gotten so bad that patrols are doubling up, two officers per car. “If we get two cars tomorrow, we’re still in a bad spot, because we’ve got four or six cars that have to be replaced,” said Dawson. “We are never going to catch up.”
Out of sight, out of mind
The inability to keep the cruisers on the road impacts the overall visual effect of police presence. Chief Vince Morber said, “That’s one less car that people see out in the city. One car can only go to one call, make one traffic stop. The cruiser is a force multiplier. You’re more visible with two.”
The station is an active one. “Last year, we had 35,000 traffic stops and 44,000 total calls,” he said.
Because of the constant usage, the condition of the fleet has deteriorated over the past three years.
“Every year, when we’re asked to submit our budget, we put in for new cars and it’s been cut. I put in $90,000 this year for new vehicles and it never came through,” said Morber.
“At a certain point, you set your priorities and spend your time and money accordingly. I feel the police department has gotten the short shrift in this whole budget crunch issue,” he said. “We can’t do more with less. You do less with less.”
In the near future, the city council will again make a decision on whether to approve new cruisers. According to Morber, “An ordinance has been sent to council to approve two cruisers for us. So as long as council approves it comes September, we’ll be able to start the process of obtaining some much needed vehicles.”
It’s not only the cruisers showing wear and tear. The building that houses the police department was constructed more than 60 years ago, and cannot be retrofitted to make it adequate for modern law enforcement activities.
“It’s been outdated since it was built,” said Morber. “Just one little cubby hole after another. It’s got no central air. There’s little ventilation. We have evidence scattered here, there, everywhere. We had to use the shower room: if there’s a crime, that’s where we put evidence.”
Because of the floor plan configuration, prisoners must be escorted from the jail for interrogation or DUI testing, through corridors also used by the public.
Morber said, “An officer has to negotiate them out of the jail, through mostly locked doors, and control them at the same time. It’s a safety issue for everybody involved. Not just the officers, but the public and the prisoners.”
If the Barberton City Jail was closed, as was considered earlier this year, it wouldn’t reopen because of state regulations. “It will not get certified as fully passing state jail standards due to the age and layout,” said Dawson.
The jail, which has seven cells, is a necessity. At the end of July, the 838th prisoner of the year was booked. Without the jail, “Those people would have nowhere to go,” he said, because the Summit County jail only takes people charged with felonies, not misdemeanors.
“We are so busy, that sometimes we need to take people to jail,” said Morber. “If we don’t have that, our job is very difficult. That would have a huge impact on the city.”
When asked about plans for building new facilities, he said, “We have land for a new station.” Keeping citizens safe should be a priority, “but it comes down to funding,” and it’s not being allocated to the police department.
“I don’t know why,” he added. “Because somebody else screams louder or somebody else wants to look prettier? We’re not popular. But if you’re not safe, nothing else matters. How can you care about potholes when your neighbors are going off at 3 in the morning with a bonfire, fireworks or drugs?
“It’s frustrating. We do the best we can with what we’ve got,” said Morber. “I give my officers a lot of credit. They take pride in their job. They’re professionals. They’re not whining.
“The police department deserves better — the officers that work here and the citizens that they serve,” he said.