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It's a place where tired and broken Buffalo police cars find a bit of care before wheeling back to the streets on their drive against crime.

The dozen workers in the mechanic shop at the Seneca Street police garage know well the rigors patrol cars experience 365 days a year.

The pedal-to-metal accelerations, the screeching stops, the potholes and, of course, the back seat prisoners who sometimes enter the vehicles kicking and screaming -- all this makes the patrol cars old before their time.

To be sure, the grimy, cavernous police garage is no fountain of youth. But the oil changes, new brake shoes and freshly treaded tires are all part of the routine maintenance regimen that keeps the vehicles roadworthy.

"It's a big responsibility, and it keeps my chest pounding pretty good," said Harry J. Trippett, superintendent of maintenance for the department's 380 vehicles, which includes 175 marked cars assigned to patrol.

It also is a $1.4 million-a-year operation.

"My No. 1 priority is safety, and my No. 2 responsibility is making sure there are enough patrol vehicles available," Trippett said.

The scene beyond his office remains constant: The open hoods of patrol cars, mechanics peering into the engine compartments -- almost like a doctor asking a patient to say "ah."

"And we've heard some strange noises under the hood of the cars," Trippett joked.

The battle to keep patrol cars in motion is never-ending.

On an average day, 15 cars are repaired and returned to service, but an equal number arrive -- sometimes at the end of a tow-truck hook -- for fixing.

The oldest patrol cars in the fleet date to 1991 and are kept in reserve for emergency use. Odometer readings of 200,000 miles on vehicles are common.

A typical patrol car can rack up as much as 50,000 miles in a year, compared with the 12,000 miles family cars annually average.

Unlike most other vehicles, the police cars operate 24 hours a day, and that takes its toll. Proof is easily spotted. Three burned-up patrol cars, a few wrecks and others with not so obvious maladies, parked off to the side collecting dust.

The department, in upgrading the fleet, recently switched to Ford Crown Victoria from Chevrolet Caprice cruisers. Twenty-three Crown Victorias, each costing $25,000, have been purchased; more are needed to retire high-mileage patrol cars.

But in a city nearly running on empty when it comes to public dollars, Trippet and other garage workers aren't very optimistic on the chances of the city buying any new cars soon.

That's why it pains some of the mechanics to see patrol cars needlessly punished.

"The police cars are made well," another mechanic added, "but they become junk because some officers drive them, well, let's say, not as they would their own personal cars."

Some smaller departments assign officers to specific cars to promote a personal interest in the vehicle's upkeep. But Buffalo does not have enough patrol cars to adopt that policy.

Some officers, Trippet said, "do take very good care of their patrol cars."

What happens when police vehicles reach the end of the line?

They often hit the auction block or are assigned temporarily to the "boneyard," a fenced-in parking lot beside the garage.

"We cannibalize them for parts," said Ed Jordan, a mechanic.

Many patrol cars have an after life as taxis, according to Trippett. "Cab companies are among the biggest buyers of our old cars."

Do any patrol cars make it directly to the junkyard?

"Very few end up there -- only the wrecks, and they really have to be totaled," Trippett said.

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