- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 23, 2001

The D.C. Inspector General's Office has uncovered a scheme in which police officers and towing companies collaborate to illegally confiscate cars and charge victims exorbitant storage fees.

The Metropolitan Police Department yesterday began an internal investigation into the report's findings, Executive Assistant Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer said.

Chief Gainer said the Office of Professional Responsibility has "for some time" been investigating some of the problems named in the report, which was issued in March. Department officials also are using the findings "to see if there are ways we can improve our business practices," he said.

In the report, titled "A Review of the District of Columbia Towing Regulations and Its Enforcement," investigators for D.C. Inspector General Charles C. Maddox cited instances in which officers violate D.C. law and department rules by arranging for illegal towing, not notifying car owners and having a financial stake in towing companies.

Illegally towed vehicles disappear in sparsely regulated private impound lots, leaving owners without cars and insurance companies with large bills, according to a copy of the report obtained by The Washington Times.

The report does not specify how many officers were involved in the scheme. Chief Gainer said no one has been disciplined because the investigation has just started.

Investigators found that some police officers and civilian employees used their positions of authority to further their private towing companies. For example, one civilian police employee towed cars to a police building during his shift, then used his private towing truck to impound the vehicles after work.

One officer working security at an apartment complex ordered cars towed by a towing company he was associated with. The officer, who later resigned, also was seen driving a private tow truck while in uniform.

Some officers and tow truck drivers collaborated to tow legally parked cars, the report said.

At the request of a tow company owner, one officer responded to a McDonald's parking lot outside his patrol area to issue infractions, and three waiting trucks took the cars away while the owners helplessly watched, investigators reported.

In another variant of the scheme, some officers at accident scenes or who recover stolen cars directly call tow trucks instead of waiting for dispatchers to send a contractor's tow truck, investigators found.

As a result, no record of the tow is kept and the company can keep the car to rack up storage fees.

The report did not mention whether these officers receive kickbacks from the companies they help.

Police agencies in the area have uncovered similar schemes involving law enforcement officers, but "it's kind of rare," said Metro Transit Police Sgt. James Holmes, who is a director of the International Association of Auto Theft Investigators.

"It's rare that police are involved in some type of internal corruption, but it has happened in the past in D.C. and in the outlying jurisdictions," Sgt. Holmes said.

The report found that while some officers broke D.C. laws and department rules in their work with towing companies, others just did not properly enforce towing regulations.

In addition to the towing scheme, the report criticized the Metropolitan Police Department's system for documenting and tracking recovered stolen vehicles as "antiquated and not functional."

The department's database holds only 15 of the 17-digit vehicle identification number.

Even worse, "more than half of the numbers were either entered incorrectly or not entered at all," the report states.

"As a result of officers failing to notify owners, owners have often gone months without a vehicle and are faced with a large tow and storage expense," according to the report.

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