Detroit police to take over part of city towing operations

George Hunter
The Detroit News
The Detroit Police Department plans to take over part of city towing operations.

After years of controversy, lawsuits and corruption, the Detroit Police Department on Monday will start taking over a chunk of the city's police towing operations.

The Detroit Board of Police Commissioners passed a resolution 7-2 Thursday allowing Detroit Police to provide towing service. The board will have oversight of the towing process.

Among the changes: Citizens who are unable to pay towing and storage fees will be allowed to petition the police board for a hardship waiver. 

The department has purchased six tow trucks at $575,000, and has allocated four city-owned lots where impounded vehicles will be stored, Detroit Police Assistant Chief James White told the police commissioners.

White said 15 civilians will be hired to drive the trucks and run the impound lots, with 12 people already hired, 10 of whom are Detroit residents. Drivers will be required to hold a commercial driver's license, White said.

In addition to the six trucks recently purchased, the department already had three other tow trucks, bringing the department's fleet to nine trucks. The new trucks were bought with money in the police department budget allocated for its fleet.

"We looked at 23 biggest cities in the United States and found 20 of them operated tow trucks and impound lots," White said during a standing room-only board meeting at police headquarters. He said drivers will begin their training Monday. 

Police Chief James Craig said the new drivers will likely begin towing cars Wednesday. 

Towing and storage fees, set by the City Council, will not change, White said. In 2013, the City Council authorized a jump from a $75 towing fee to $115, in addition to a $15-per-day storage fee.

Craig told The Detroit News the police department has been planning the change since last year.

"It’s no secret there’s been a lot of concern with towing in the city, with federal probes and corruption," Craig said. "We will be the primary tower for the city, although we're not taking over the entire operation. That's not realistic. There will still be private towers."

Prior to Thursday's vote, Police Commissioner Willie Burton, who cast one of two dissenting votes, said he wanted more time to study the proposal.

"I think it’s premature to vote on this today, given that we just received an email yesterday that this was going to be on the agenda," he said. "As an oversight body, we should do our due diligence to look into best practices as well. We should set this aside for at last 30 days so we can go back and review what the cost and savings will be for the city."

However, board chairman Willie Bell said board members have had ongoing discussions about the switch "for some time" with Craig and Mayor Mike Duggan.

Commissioner William Davis was the other dissenting vote. 

Under the new policy, White said citizens whose vehicles are towed will be able to claim hardship, and ask the police board to waive towing and storage fees.

"Often, bad things happen to good people and they can’t get their car out of impound, and they can’t go to work," White said. "We thought it would be a good opportunity to submit to the board the opportunity to waive fees in those instances."

White said the department is developing a phone application that would allow people whose vehicles are towed to look up the vehicle identification number, locate which impound lot the vehicle was towed to, and pay any towing and storage fees.

"We're not there yet, but it's close," White said.

Commissioner the Rev. Jim Holley asked: "What will happen to the towers (currently on the rotation)?"

"It certainly will have an impact," White said. "We anticipate 30-50 percent of the current tows in the city being done by our tow operation. It could be more."

Detroit Police Chief James Craig and Lt. Michael Parish address a group of towers in the hall outside a meeting of the Police Board of Commissioners on Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018.

In the hallway outside the meeting, towers who said they heard about the switch only minutes before the meeting began, huddled with grim faces.

"This will put us out of business," said Julie Semma, owner of Seven D's Towing on East Nevada, which has been operating for 29 years. "If they take half our tows, there's no way we can stay in business."

Aaron Smith, owner of Executive Towing on Seven Mile and Mt. Elliot, agreed. "We'll have to do something else," he said. "We can't survive this."

Craig told the group he would meet with them Wednesday "to discuss co-existence."

The chief was asked if the city tried to get the new system up and running before Sept. 30, when a new state law takes effect prohibiting municipalities from towing. Craig said the department began planning the change last year, before the law was proposed.

"Clearly, someone was aware of our intent, and suddenly there's a law passed (that takes effect on) the 30th," he said.

Craig said the department will make "ongoing assessments" about whether to purchase more than six trucks or allocate more land for vehicle storage.

"We think this will generate revenue for the city," Craig said. "I can't predict how much, but we think it'll not only save money, but make money.

"Our official policy will be: When a member of the department requests a tow, the call will be dispatched to a police tower," Craig said. "The vehicle will then be towed to a DPD lot.

"If a police tow truck is not available, communications will resort to the existing tow rotation," Craig said.

The city's tow lots will be open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.

Another change: While in the past most tow companies accepted cash only, under the new system, cash will not be accepted, White said.

"This will enable us to better audit the process," White said. "I don’t like dealing with cash; I don’t like officers dealing with cash."

Until a non-cash system is set up, payment  will be at the city's Municipal Parking office, White said.

For years, Detroit's towing operation has been plagued by problems. As of last year, there were least three federal investigations involving towers, while Detroit police launched multiple internal probes.

Gasper Fiore, who for years ran Boulevard & Trumbull, the city's largest tow company, is serving a 21-month prison sentence after pleading guilty to corruption charges in Macomb County, although the federal probe also involved Detroit towing corruption.

Former Detroit Police deputy chief and legal adviser Celia Washington was sentenced in April to a year in prison after pleading guilty to taking a $3,000 bribe from Fiore in exchange for giving him favorable treatment.

Federal wiretaps first made public by The Detroit News in December showed FBI agents listed several people as "targets," including Detroit City Councilman Gabe Leland.

According to the wiretap filing, FBI Special Agent Robert Beeckman wrote that Fiore claimed Craig had “briefed Gabe Leland about the towing case, and Leland has briefed the Fiore family about it.”

Craig insists he never told Leland anything about the investigation. He said he contacted the FBI after a 2016 meeting with Leland, who Craig said was asking questions about the tow rotation.

“I was not comfortable with Leland’s questions, and I immediately contacted the FBI as soon as he left the room and told them he was asking me questions about the towing investigation," Craig told The News last year.

The city's business deals with Fiore were called into question in 2005 city audits that found former police officials gave an inordinate amount of towing business to Fiore, in violation of the towing rules; and awarded Fiore no-bid leases and overpaid for his buildings that were used for police operations.

The audits suggested that Detroit retool its towing operation, but when the police board began restructuring the process in 2009, accusations of intimidation, stalking and corruption began to fly.

Ex-Commissioner Michael Reeves filed a police report in September 2010 claiming he was threatened to refrain from voting on the proposed rules. Ex-Commissioner Jerome Warfield said at the May 5, 2011, board meeting that he had been followed.

For years, representatives from other towing companies packed police board meetings, often complaining Fiore was getting more than his share of the city's towing jobs.
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