The Austin Police Department is taking its fleet of more than 400 Ford Explorers out of service amid concerns of carbon monoxide leaking into the cabins.
"The safety of our police officers and staff is our chief concern," interim Police Chief Brian Manley said in a memo to the mayor and City Council members.
The SUVs will be exchanged for older Crown Victorias throughout the weekend. With fewer of those vehicles available, Manley said, each will have two officers instead of one.
Manley said the situation had "reached a critical mass." Since the beginning of the year, 18 officers have been tested and found to have elevated levels of carbon monoxide, he said. Three officers are on "no-duty" status and are receiving treatment. Breathing in too much of the odorless gas can be fatal.
The problem first came up when an officer got dizzy and nearly wrecked his car in March. Following the incident, APD began installing carbon monoxide detectors in the vehicles.
Ford said it is working with the APD and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to determine the precise cause of the leaks.
An NHTSA report found that no "substantive data or actual evidence" supports a claim that any injuries were the result of carbon monoxide poisoning, but that preliminary testing suggests "CO levels may be elevated in certain driving scenarios."
City Hall spokesman David Greene said Thursday that the risk to law enforcement officers was likely greater than that to civilians.
"A regular civilian owner is not operating them [Explorers] in the same conditions a police officer would be," he said. "They’re not idling their car or running their car for 18 hours straight a day."
He said the city was waiting for a definitive answer about the cause of the leaks.
At a news conference, Manley addressed potential concerns that doubling up could lead to a spike in crime.
“For those criminals who might think this is an opportunity to take advantage of the circumstances that we’re in," he said, "remember we now have a whole fleet of unmarked vehicles in the community as well, on patrol, that are not readily identifiable as police cars.”
Other police departments, in addition to some civilian drivers, have reported similar problems with the Ford Explorers.
This post has been updated.