City council accuses Detroit police of plotting towing takeover

George Hunter
The Detroit News
The suit, filed Monday in Wayne Circuit Court by east-side towing firm Detroit Auto Recovery, claims: “The city is operating two illegal enterprises: a towing company whose trucks fail to comply with state law; and multiple impound facilities that violate the Zoning Ordinance.”

Detroit City Council members are accusing Detroit police of plotting behind their backs to take over the city's towing operations — an allegation the police chief disputes.

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

The department purchased six tow trucks at $575,000 from its fleet budget, and allocated four city-owned lots where impounded vehicles will be stored, Detroit Police officials told the commissioners at Thursday's meeting. The six trucks will join three other trucks already used by the police department.

During a contentious Monday meeting of the City Council's Public Health and Safety Committee, members lambasted police officials, claiming they secretly planned to take over the towing operation without informing the council.

"When we sat here and DPD did your complete and total presentation of your budget, not one time was it mentioned about DPD doing towing, switching into towing, looking at a tow trucks … none of that was mentioned, ever," Councilwoman Janeé Ayers told Deputy Chief David LeValley, Deputy Chief Todd Bettison, and Trisha Stein, the police department's director of administrative operations.

Stein replied: "I don’t understand why (the tow truck purchase) wasn’t included (in budget talks). I know in our fleet replacement plan ... we had tow trucks. They were approved; they were part of our plan."

Ayers told Stein that she was being "continuously disingenuous" about the issue and asked Stein why she didn't come to the council table to discuss it.

"Take some ownership and responsibility about it," Ayers said during the Monday session. "You dropped the ball and you want me to pick it up. I have the right mind to kick it down the field. That’s how I feel right now because it’s not fair."

On Wednesday, Detroit Police Chief James Craig told The Detroit News that the decision to take over part of the towing operation — an option officials had been exploring since last fall — was made in large part because of rampant towing problems that go back years, including lawsuits, federal corruption probes and allegations of cronyism.

"It's no secret we've had towing challenges that predate me, as evidenced by indictments by the FBI," Craig said. "A year ago, we started looking at what we could do differently. That's not a criticism of every tow company, because some of them do a good job. But we wanted to look at best practices and replicate them."

The police towing operation is already under way, he said. 

"We started towing over the weekend," Craig said. "We're still in training mode, but our trucks are deployed and we're towing."

The department plans to hire 15 civilians to drive the trucks and run the impound lots. Drivers will be required to hold a commercial driver's license.

Among the changes with the police taking over towing: Citizens whose vehicles are towed will be able to petition the police board for a hardship waiver if they can't afford towing and storage fees. The department also will stop the longstanding practice by tow companies of accepting cash only.

Police officials told the board last week the department will likely handle from 30 to 50 percent of the city's tows. The police trucks will get priority for tows, and if there are more jobs than they can handle, the contracted private towers would pick them up.

During Monday's committee meeting, Councilman Scott Benson argued the move will hurt private towers.

"I do not want to be a part of closing down businesses and taking food out of people’s mouths because we want to inject ourselves in that situation," Benson said. "Now, the city of Detroit should have the ability to do tows. We should be a safety valve; if they can’t get the tow done, we should be the tow company of last resort. We should not be the first tow company. And at 30 to 50 percent, we’re looking at taking possibly half of all tows in-house. So I’m concerned about that."

Ayers suggested the department rushed to start towing before a new law kicks in Oct. 1 preventing municipalities from getting into the towing business.

"What I want to know ... is who made the arbitrary decision that we’re going to get into the tow business and then make it come and be pushed down everybody’s throat?" Ayers asked. "Because you have a deadline you have to meet in order to be grandfathered in."

Craig told The Detroit News on Wednesday that officials began exploring the idea of taking over part of the city's towing operations in September 2017.

"If we had just started thinking about it because of this new law, I don’t think we could’ve done it," he said. "There wasn't enough time. But we were already down the road with it, and we didn't even know such a law was being introduced."

Craig said word of the department's plans likely leaked out to the "towing lobby," which worked to get the law passed. He also denied trying to keep the department's plans from the city council.

 "I wouldn’t agree with that characterization that we did this in secret, although there are a lot of initiatives we launch which we don't as a matter of routine discuss with everyone," he said. "We were in the research phase of this. But we have had ongoing talks with the mayor's office and the chairman of the board (Willie Bell)."

Bell said there have been ongoing talks with the mayor and police chief about towing issues, although he said he only recently found out for certain the police planned to take over towing.

"There was some indication of it, but I didn't get confirmation until just prior to (Thursday's vote)," Bell said.

Craig said he told Bell six months ago during meetings with Mayor Mike Duggan that the police department planned on going into the towing business. "Maybe I didn't give him an exact date, but we talked about it," he said.

Craig said police officials looked at 23 cities, and found 21 of them towed vehicles. 

"What did we do wrong? We can tow; is that a bad thing for the city? We're going to evaluate the effectiveness and see if it's going to generate revenue for the city," Craig said.

Detroit Chief Operating Officer Dave Massaron said in a statement provided Wednesday to The News that every aspect of the towing change went through the necessary approvals.

"This change was necessary to bring order and consistency to an important city function that has been badly broken for years. With DPD in charge of all aspects of towing and impound, the public at last will have a professional and uniform system and uniform fees. Individuals whose vehicles have been towed and impounded also will have, for the first time, the ability to have some fees waived if they are able to demonstrate financial need."  

After last week's board meeting, Craig promised to meet with private towers to discuss how to coexist with them. The first meeting was held Wednesday.

Craig said the department is committed to sitting down with towers monthly for the next few months "so communication is open."

Julie Semma, owner of Seven D’s Towing, was one of 16 tow company representatives to meet Wednesday with Craig.

“We all discussed our issues, and the chief said he’ll have an open dialogue with us," she said. "Our main concern is not being put out of business, and I commend the chief for allowing us to have this meeting. There’s a way we can grow and do business with each other, and the chief seemed to agree with that.”
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