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Fort Worth Police Spend $7.9 Million To Stock Up On Dangerous Patrol Cars

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(credit: KTVT/KTXA) Mireya Villarreal
A native Texan, Mireya was born and raised in the Rio Grande Valley....
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They are deadly. They are dangerous. But they are cheap. Ford stopped making the Crown Victoria back in 2011.  But that didn’t stop one North Texas police department from stocking up on the troubled patrol car.

The Fort Worth Police Department lost one of its officers back in 2006.  A drunk driver hit the officer’s Crown Victoria and it burst into flames.  Just a few months ago we saw another officer in a similar accident narrowly escape the same fate.

Yet the CBS 11 I-Team uncovered the City of Fort Worth spent nearly $8 million in 2010 to stock up on the defective car.

The problems with the Ford Crown Victoria caught national headlines more than ten years ago.  The chance the car could catch on fire after being rear-ended drove a lot of departments to get rid of the cars.  And eventually Ford decided to just stop making them.

But new documents the I-Team uncovered show the City of Fort Worth saw this as a buying opportunity; snapping up more than ten times as many cars as they usually buy over the course of a year.

Dwayne Freeto was a father of two, a husband, son and dedicated police officer.  He was killed back in 2006 when he stopped to help a stranded motorist.

“To know that you’re on fire and you can’t get out of your car, and to see people trying to get you, that would be an extremely hard memory to keep.  So, I like to think he was unconscious,” Karen Freeto, Dwayne’s widow, told us.

Dwayne Freeto was on the force for nine months when a drunk driver rear-ended his Ford Crown Victoria.  The impact jammed his doors and punctured the gas tank.

“He survived the impact of the crash,” Karen said.  “He just didn’t survive the fire.”

Karen Freeto sued Ford Motor Company and eventually settled in 2008.  She says the position of the car’s gas tank caused her husband’s death.  According to the Center for Auto Safety, Freeto’s death is just one of more than 150 cases where Ford’s design flaw was blamed.

“And as long as they’re out there, there’s still going to be the possibility of more deaths,” Karen Freeto added.

Last September, we captured video from a car accident I-20 involving a Fort Worth police officer.  His vehicle was hit from behind and immediately burst into flames.  The officer survived with minor injuries, but his 2011 Crown Vic was destroyed by the fire.

Documents the I-Team uncovered show, in 2010 Fort Worth bought 359 Crown Victoria patrol cars.  Knowing the car would be discontinued in 2011, the police department intentionally chose not to test out any other car.  Instead, they stocked up on the Crown Vic at a cost of more than $7.9 million.

The police department says the Equipment Services Department made the decision.  But the Equipment Services Department says they only bought the cars after the police department requested them.

Today Fort Worth PD has 1250 cars in its fleet; 290, nearly a quarter, are still Crown Vics.

“Essentially what they’ve got is all these cars waiting to have fires,” Keith Friedman, a vehicle safety expert and owner of the Friedman Research Center, explained.

“Is this car safe to be on the road,” CBS 11 I-Team Investigative Reporter Mireya Villarreal asked Friedman.

“Well, it’s safe as long as it’s not involved in a crash,” he answered.  “The critical issue is if you get involved in a rear-end impact, like we see the fires being caused in, then obviously not.”

The I-Team also discovered city decision makers knew about the problems with the Crown Vic before paying $7.9 million dollar to stock up.  Research from the city’s own files, that we got a hold of through an open records request, shows Crown Vic police cars have a “…higher exposure than non-police cars to high-speed rear-end accidents that compromise the fuel system on any vehicle.”

Friedman says around 2005 several safety companies created a fire suppression system specifically to combat the Crown Vic fire problems.  So, if the car is hit from behind a foam-type liquid is automatically released around the fuel tank, keeping it from bursting into flames.  The police department in Farmer’s Branch installed the technology several years ago.

Farmers Branch has five Crown Vics left in their fleet that they’re going to phase out over the next year.  Until that happens the department knows each of those officers is safe because they have fire suppression systems installed in their patrol cars, worth about $3,500 each.

“It comes down to, a piece of equipment that’s available to help the officers with safety in mind,” Chad Taylor, Farmers Branch Police Department Sergeant, tells us.  “But it also comes down to a resource that’s available to the city or the department.”

When we asked how many of Fort Worth’s Crown Vics were fitted with the fire suppression technology we found out “No vehicles were purchased with a fire suppression system and no aftermarket suppression systems were added.” [According to an email sent to CBS 11 from Fort Worth Police Department Public Information Officer, Sergeant Kelly Peel.]

“That’s heart breaking to learn that fact,” Jason Schechterle noted.

Schechterle was a police officer in Phoenix, Arizona back in 2001 when a speeding taxi driver rear-ended his Crown Vic patrol car.  He barely survived the accident, was in a coma for more than two months, suffered burns to more than 40% of his body, and eventually went through 53 surgeries in ten years.

“It’s just very sad that something like this doesn’t need to happen,” Schechterle said.  “This is not like an officer getting shot by a bad guy.”

Before coming to Fort Worth in 2008 Police Chief Jeffrey Halstead worked with Jason Schechterle in Phoenix.

“It’s unfortunate to hear that their cars are not retrofitted because I know these people care,” Schechterle added.  “And somewhere along the line, somebody who can make the financial decisions is just missing the boat.

Schechterle is now retired from police work.  He’s getting ready to release a new book, Burning Shield, which talks about his accident and journey through recovery.  But still a top priority for him is continuing to act as an advocate for police officer safety around the country.

Like Karen Freeto, his life will forever be changed by the Ford Crown Victoria.

We did compare Fort Worth with a few other cities when it comes to the Crown Victoria.  Arlington has eleven Crown Vics left in their fleet, while Irving has 32.

Neither the Fort Worth City Manager’s office nor the Police Department would talk to us on camera about this.

UPDATE:

On February 7, 2014 this story was updated to reflect the below statement from Ford Motor Company.

“The Crown Victoria Police Interceptor was designed and tested to the highest rear-impact crash standards in the industry. The Crown Victoria Police Interceptor was the only vehicle marketed to meet a 75 mph rear impact crash test. Also, the CVPI earned NHTSA’s front and side 5-Star crash ratings, its highest possible crashworthiness ratings, as well as 5-Star rollover ratings.“ – Kelli Felker, Safety Communications Manager for Ford Motor Company

(©2014 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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