Detroit to change the way city selects towing companies

Candice Williams
The Detroit News

The city of Detroit will change the way it selects towing companies, weeks after Mayor Mike Duggan vowed to overhaul the system, which he has said is "fraught with potential for abuse."

The Detroit Board of Police Commissioners voted 8-1 on Thursday to lessen its role in selecting the city’s towing companies, moving the process to the Detroit Office of Contracting and Procurement to oversee the selection, said Commissioner Willie Bell.

A competitive bidding process will replace a permit system, which the city began using in 2011. Commissioner Linda Bernard voted no on the issue. 

“It should not be DPD engaging in (selecting towers), Bell said. "... We’re trying to move them out of that particular setting of involvement. (Changing the selection process) is one way to do it.”

Erin Reed, a city of Detroit employee, prepares a car for towing at a gas station on Van Dyke in Detroit in April.

After FBI agents conducted raids at several locations simultaneously last month, Duggan directed Detroit police Chief James White to bring him a plan to eliminate the city's towing company rotation practice "once and for good" after calling the process "fraught with potential for abuse."

Towing operations in Detroit and allegations of bribery emerged as the focus of the raids, and were conducted at the homes of at-large Councilwoman Janeé Ayers and District 3 Councilman Scott Benson. The two have not been charged with any crimes, and the full scope of the federal investigation is unclear. 

Duggan has said the Police Department had been working toward eliminating a preferential rotation.

"The amounts of money that are involved are just breeding potential for abuse," the mayor said at a press conference a day after the raids.

The city's towing operations have been a source of controvery and scandal for years. A series of audits in 2005 found former police officials gave an inordinate amount of towing business to Gasper Fiore, the former owner of Boulevard & Trumbull Towing in southwest Detroit, in violation of towing rules. 

Fiore was sentenced to 21 months in federal prison in 2018 after his conviction in a Macomb County public corruption scheme.

The audits called for the city to change its towing operations, but the process, beginning in 2009, stalled amid accusations of intimidation, stalking and corruption.

Detroit's auditor general found that towing contracts were being approved without City Council approval in a 2011 report. Instead of fixing the contract process, the city began allowing towers to work under permits, which don't require as much documentation and scrutiny as contracts, and are not competitively bid.

The five-year towing permits were extended in 2016. In April, the Board of Police Commissioners extended the contracts a third time.

In 2017, White, then assistant chief, was ordered to clean up the process, and suggested the Police Department take over part of the city's towing operations.

In September 2018, the department bought six trucks, keeping 22 private companies in the towing rotation. Towers balked, and then-police Chief James Craig agreed that the department would tow less than 25% of all vehicles, leaving the rest of the jobs for the private companies.

Since taking over part of the towing operations, six of the private firms have been removed from the rotation for various infractions, including three instances of fraud.

Bell said under the new plan, companies would be selected through a contract process that would include Detroit City Council approval.

“Hopefully it makes an impact on a longstanding issue of towing in the city of Detroit, especially involving police authorized towers …” Bell said. “We have some great towers that work with the Police Department, and that’s been longstanding too, but we have to rectify a problem overall.”