A Corporate Area policewoman on patrol came close to serious injury or, possibly, death last week. That's not an uncommon occurrence in crime-plagued Jamaica. However, in this case the frightening experience came not at the hands of gunmen, but when the door of her patrol vehicle fell off in the middle of traffic.
A few days later, a member of the motoring public who observed the dangerous and embarrassing incident told the Jamaica Observer that one of the cops travelling in the dilapidated service vehicle remounted the door, but had to use his arm, which he flung through the window, to keep it closed the entire return journey back to base.
While a senior officer at that police station has confirmed the incident to the Sunday Observer, he declined to be quoted on an issue that has become shameful and a thorn in the side of the police — the rotting shell that the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) fleet has become. The JCF simply doesn't have enough vehicles to serve the country.
Angella Patterson, who is the civilian head of the JCF's Corporate Services, in response to this paper's queries, said the JCF now has only 1,300 working patrol vehicles to serve 19 geographic divisions and protect a civilian population of over two million people.
"We have about 1,300 active vehicles now on the road, about 1,800 in total, but 1,300 actively on the road. There are about 350 vehicles that could be made roadworthy with parts. The estimate is between that $20 million and $30 million in parts would make those vehicles roadworthy," she added.
Patterson admitted that Jamaica is woefully nowhere near the international standard for the ratio of service vehicles to personnel. That standard is one service vehicle for every four police officers.
That means, in Jamaica's case, with the 1,300 vehicles currently making up the JCF's fleet and the approximately 12,000 members of the constabulary, the ratio is more like nine cops to a vehicle.
According to one Sunday Observer source, most station chiefs count themselves lucky if they have even one vehicle that is roadworthy enough be sent out on patrol daily. He said that in most cases, there is a rotation or tag-team approach with the few vehicles that are available for use, with one team having to wait several hours until another team returns the service vehicle to base before going on the road to work.
A senior officer said it's not a recent problem and that members of the force just have to make do and "juggle".
But some of the policemen and women who spoke with this newspaper — who also asked that their names and that of their station be withheld in order to protect their identities — said the vehicle shortage defeats the hard work they do as crime-fighters. It means they cannot respond in a timely fashion when called to a crime scene and they run the risk of having to push-start the vehicle in less than secure situations.
In one case, some officers revealed that their station has the full use of fewer than half of its fleet of just over 20 service vehicles — consisting of mostly Toyotas of varying makes and ages. Ten of them have transmission problems, one is missing a windscreen, another has issues with the gearbox and another was 'written off' in an accident. The remaining vehicles, which spend their time in and out of the garage, must service a vast geographical area that includes very hilly terrain.
Making matters worse is that the constabulary has unpaid bills for mechanical repairs amounting to less than $10,000. In some cases, the bills for parts and labour range between $8,500 and $90,000, but even this is money that the station can't find.
At one station, three patrol cars have been parked for months because they have no headlights, while another one seen in the station yard was on blocks and had only three tyres.
Just last week, a photo making the rounds on Facebook provoked sarcasm and mirth among users; it showed a parked patrol vehicle with cardboard substituting for glass in its driver-side window as heavy rains pelted the car.
The tales of decrepit and/or no police service vehicles at police stations across the country have become a common cry on radio talk shows. A civilian who called RJR's Hotline radio programme last Wednesday complained that the lone vehicle at the Waterford Police Station in St Catherine was down — in need of a head gasket. That same head gasket, the caller said, had already been repaired by a senior officer at the station who dipped into her own purse before, but just couldn't afford it this time.
The Sunday Observer was last week regaled with the tale of one motorist who said men in police uniform who were standing beside a pickup truck in Sligoville attempted to stop him and his wife as they drove past. The motorist was hesitant to stop because the truck was red and bore no markings suggesting that it was a legitimate police vehicle.
Later, the couple was informed that this vehicle was the property of a police superintendent who had allowed it to be used for spot checks. The station had no working police vehicle at that time.
One policeman said that there are issues at the JCF's Transport and Repairs Division, which seems perpetually short of parts to repair or maintain the vehicles in the fleet.
"Sometimes when yu tek yu vehicle to T&R, dem vandalise it fi parts fi a next vehicle whe down there longer than yours," the officer said with a wry chuckle. "Most police fraid to leave dem vehicle down there, 'cause they might get it back with a problem it never use to have."
Patterson said she could not deny that there are issues at the repair hub. She explained that the $300 million allocated for maintenance of the constabulary's fleet in this year's budget comes in spurts, and not everything can be fixed at once. However, she lamented that so many police officers failed to take proper care of the vehicles assigned to them.
Sometimes there may be a mechanical problem, she said, but because the vehicle is in such high demand, it is passed from hand to hand and the problem is allowed to deteriorate to the point where what was a simple, inexpensive repair, now requires serious expenditure.
She also cautioned against simply blaming the Government for the shortage of roadworthy police vehicles.
"It is a really difficult situation. I am saying all this to say that it is too easy to point a finger and say it's Transport and Repairs not doing their job, or the ministry is not doing its job... It's a complex issue and a combination of many, many factors," said Patterson.
"Underlying everything is insufficient resources. But, if we manage it a little better, perhaps it would work better. If we got a certain number of new vehicles every year, certainly that would help. But we live in Jamaica, and our reality is that we have to make do with what we have and make do the best we can," noted Patterson.
In the meantime, the JCF has found itself relying heavily on donations to round out what the Government's budget can buy. Since this year, the JCF has been the recipient of several donations of vehicles, motorbikes and vehicle parts.
The JCF is, of course, grateful for these donations from private sector entities and civic groups, Patterson noted, adding that they go a far way in boosting the fleet, but she was emphatic that the JCF cannot and does not solicit these gifts and that they have to go through the appropriate channels and be approved by the national security minister before they are accepted.
Meanwhile, the chronic shortage of cop cars in police divisions across the country threatens to derail the battle against crime, something that has not escaped the notice of police support groups such as the St Andrew North Police Civic Committee, which has committed to raising money to support the police stations in that jurisdiction.
Chairman of the civic committee, Ian Uter, said the group is trying to generate more private sector interest in helping the police in that division.
"The absence of properly functioning motor vehicles negatively impacts the effectiveness of police personnel in this area," said Uter. "Spare parts, tyres and light bulbs are sufficient to get some cars back on the roads, bearing in mind that these cars are upwards of 10 years old.
"We appeal to all sector and business leaders living and working in this region to assist in whatever way they can. Our Police Civic Committee is currently examining ways to raise funds to assist in restoring some of these cars. We intend to create a motor vehicle maintenance account with the funds to effect minor repairs. We are mindful of the budgetary constraints, but trust that some funds will be identified to assist."
Uter said that his investigations show that there are six vehicles which could be put back in circulation with a few repairs. However, there is no additional funding coming from Government to fix the fleet.
In the meantime, some cops have been reaching into their own pockets for money to help keep the service vehicles up and running, including filling the gas tanks.
That happens mostly when the Police Emergency Debit Card — introduced several years ago to purchase fuel for service vehicles that exhaust their normal monthly fuel budget — is depleted, said one policeman.
In June, National Security Minister Peter Bunting admitted that mobility of police personnel is a problem across the island.
"We need about 300 vehicles in the coming year if we are going to make a serious dent in the requirement," he noted then.
He acknowledged that although the number of vehicles would be inadequate, it would give the security forces a substantial boost. Bunting promised to prioritise this need within the coming fiscal year, saying that some of the vehicles would be acquired though funds seized under the Proceeds of Crime Act.