Editorial: Cops should fight crime, not tow cars

The Detroit News

A guiding principle of good government should be that it not compete with private businesses in the delivery of services. And yet the Detroit Police Dept. is now in the vehicle towing business, even though there are dozens of privately owned tow truck owners in the city.

It shouldn't be in that enterprise, particularly since a federal investigation into towing operations in the city is still underway.

We understand the frustration the police have in dealing with corrupt operators who have bilked the city and cheated motorists.

An FBI investigation has already produced convictions of Gasper Fiore of Boulevard and Trumbull towing and Cellia Washington, a former civilian deputy police chief. Councilman Gabe Leland, who had a relationship with Fiore's daughter, is also under scrutiny. 

But the answer to corrupt city contractors is to find honest vendors and provide hawk-eyed oversight of how they operate. It's not to get the city into an area that is not a core function of government.

The department recently purchased six tow trucks at a cost of $575,000 and will take over roughly half the towing jobs in the city.

Police officials told City Council that the department will be more lenient with indigent motorists than private contractors have been, and will end the longstanding practice of private towers of accepting only cash payment.

But these are reforms the city could have demanded of the private vendors as part of the contract. 

Instead, along with the six trucks, the department will now have 15 new civilian employees on its payroll. It will also operate its own impoundment lot.

Those employees will inflate the city's payroll today, and add to future retiree costs.

Contracting with private towers, as the city has always done, frees the city of the cost of health and retiree benefits. 

The department also is now responsible for maintenance of the trucks and whatever costs are associated with running the lot.

Certainly, the revenues that previously went to the private contractors are considerable, and will now go into city coffers. 

But in the long run, Detroit would be better off charging the private vendors more for the contracts than adding to its own future liabilities.

The Detroit Police Department has its hands full doing the job it is expected to do — fighting crime. It is the second-most violent city in America. Losing that distinction will require the department's full attention. Running a towing company is an unnecessary distraction.

City Council is upset by the move, saying it was bypassed in the decision making. The council should have some say in such a significant expansion of police operations.

Council should continue to demand an explanation from both Police Chief James Craig and Mayor Mike Duggan on why starting a towing company makes sense for taxpayers.

City government should operate as lean as possible; taking on future retiree costs works against that goal.

Detroit Police should let the towing experts handle towing services, while demanding accountability and ethical practices from them.