LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - Police officers risk their lives for all of us every day. But are those risks higher than they have to be?
The WAVE 3 News Troubleshooter team has learned that dozens of LMPD officers are driving vehicles that weren’t made specifically for police work, including Det. Deidre Mengedoht, the detective who died when a truck slammed into her car on Christmas Eve.
Mengedoht drove a 2015 Ford Taurus. It was unmarked, without the LMPD logos. But that’s not all her car lacked. LMPD confirmed to WAVE 3 News that her Taurus was not a police-packaged vehicle, meaning it was also missing the long list of features designed specifically to help keep officers safe, like specially-designed crumple zones, or high-speed, rear-impact testing. Police-packaged vehicles, such as the Ford Interceptor, are designed for police use.
Right now, it’s unknown if any of those features could have saved her life, but WAVE 3 News confirmed there are at least 200 other officers doing their jobs in non-police packaged vehicles.
“That’s a lot, a lot of officers that are out there working who may at one point in time be out in a similar situation where they feel compelled to act,” Fraternal Order of Police President Nicolai Jilek told WAVE 3 News.
Crashes or officers struck by vehicles are the second-leading cause of line-of-duty deaths nationwide, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. They report 32 officers were killed in crashes just last year alone.
“If there is an emergency situation on a roadway, our vehicle is our primary piece of equipment that we’re issued,” Jilek said.
WAVE 3 News wanted to find out why these vehicles are so important and traveled to Richmond to talk with the experts at the Kentucky Department of Criminal Justice Training.
“Unfortunately, it’s all too common that we are losing officers every year to police crashes,” Jeff Knox, Vehicle Operations Training Instructor at the Kentucky Department of Criminal Justice Training, said.
Knox gave WAVE 3 News the lowdown on police-packaged cars, and listed a few of the features that make the vehicles safer for police use, such as crumple zones that dispense the impact away from the officer, electronic stability control, bigger rotors, upgraded suspension, and sensors, among other things.
“Everything from the tires up is there to protect the police officer,” Knox said.
Knox took WAVE 3 News around their track where they train officers from around the state on their vehicles. While driving an Interceptor, he showed how the upgraded brake pads reduce stopping distances at intersections, and how the car can help an officer navigate a turn at high speed.
Ford told WAVE 3 News that its police Interceptor has gone through 75 mph rear crash testing since 2003, and are the only vehicles in the world to have done so. In fact, one of the Ford safety manuals says the only model suitable for police service is the Interceptor.
“In our opinion here at the academy, if you’re on the road, you need to be in a police vehicle,” Knox said.
LMPD declined an interview for this story. It couldn’t provide us with a list of vehicles in the current fleet in time for this story.
LMPD officials did say they have more than 600 Interceptors on the road. They also confirmed that 184 of their vehicles are regular Tauruses. And, a partial list WAVE 3 News obtained in 2017 showed dozens of additional vehicles and models identified as part of the fleet that aren’t police-packaged.
An LMPD spokesperson did provide a statement, saying “We diligently manage our fleet to do our best to ensure all officers use the vehicles that best allow them to do their jobs as safely as possible.”
LMPD also said its non-police-packaged vehicles are primarily assigned to administrators and detectives, like Mengedoht.
The department doesn’t believe any vehicle in its fleet could have withstood that type of impact, LMPD said.
But for the FOP president, the concern revolves around the more than 200 other officers in non-police-packaged vehicles who at one point may have no choice.
“You can’t determine when and where that help is needed, whether it be on the fast lane on the interstate on the shoulder on the interstate or in a neighborhood street,” Jilek said. “If we see somebody that needs help, we’re going to stop.”
Knox said the main deterrent for departments is the cost to purchase new vehicles.
LMPD said it continually reviews safety when deciding on purchasing new vehicles and said it does have plans to purchase police-packaged vehicles, but did not say how many and by when.