- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 25, 2001

Federal prosecutors are investigating reports that D.C. police officers have collaborated with towing companies for years to illegally tow cars and hide them on impound lots, then charge owners exorbitant storage fees to get their vehicles back.
A law-enforcement official told The Washington Times yesterday that the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia is pursuing a criminal investigation into towing irregularities where recovered autos essentially vanish because police collaborate with towing companies to take the cars and do not establish proper records.
A report by the Office of D.C. Inspector General Charles C. Maddox brought examples of the illegal scheme to light.
The report documents several incidents where investigators observed officers collaborating with tow-truck drivers to wrongfully take legally parked cars, as first reported Thursday in The Times.
A top D.C. police official said there has been an internal investigation into such problems for "some time."
The autos disappear into the abyss of sparsely regulated private impound lots and accrue huge storage fees. The rogue towing companies escape detection because police and the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs do not do their inspection and regulation jobs, according to the report, a copy of which was obtained by The Times.
Officials with the U.S. Attorney's Office and the D.C. Inspector General's Office said they could not comment about the matter yesterday.
Even though federal prosecutors are pursuing a criminal case, the head of the D.C. police internal affairs unit yesterday said the inspector general's report "was not a report where their findings suggested a criminal investigation be conducted."
Assistant Chief Brian Jordan, director of the Office of Professional Responsibility, said the D.C. Inspector General's Office "would be responsible for taking appropriate law-enforcement action."
The inspector general's report does not name officers or give exact locations or dates for questionable incidents, but the agency's investigators retain such specific information.
When The Times asked Chief Jordan whether he will seek that specific information about D.C. police officers, he again put the onus on the D.C. Inspector General's Office.
"If they found an officer doing a criminal violation, they would have taken the appropriate police action because they are sworn law-enforcement officers in the District of Columbia," he said. "We need to look at whether general orders were violated."
Chief Jordan said most of the report "deals with how we need to do a better job coordinating between D.C. government agencies, tow trucks, our department and citizens to make sure we can do a better job for the citizens in this area."
A new data collection system to monitor the interaction between officers and citizens will help ensure that officers and towing companies do not collaborate to wrongfully confiscate cars, he said.
The inspector general's report about the towing problems was issued in March, but D.C. police did not start an internal investigation into the report's findings until The Times made inquiries on Wednesday.
The Inspector General's Office forwards all investigation reports to relevant city agencies — including the police department — as a routine matter.
There is confusion among police officials about when the report arrived, or if it ever did. They said they did not get it until this week — either Wednesday or Thursday — and they added that officials with the D.C. Inspector General's Office insist it was sent in March.
Regardless, they will face a grilling from D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson, chairman of the committee that oversees the police department, during hearings this fall.
"I plan to follow up with the chief about this," said Mrs. Patterson, Ward 3 Democrat and chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
"This is a long-standing community concern," she said. "People feel victimized twice. Once when their car is stolen, and again when they have to go through all sorts of hurdles to get it back. The allegation that government employees could be part of this is pretty appalling."
The inspector general's report on towing problems was approved March 30 and issued just days after the news stories broke about the police department's e-mail scandal, in which as many as 350 officers had sent racist, sexist and profane messages over computers installed in police cars. That estimate was revised a month later. Since then, 20 officers have been suspended for violations relating to the computer messages.
D.C. police officials yesterday said they didn't get the report in March and that it was not shelved out of any concern about negative press coverage.
Metropolitan Police Department officials yesterday said they are working to improve the process for recovering stolen autos and notifying officers through training and technology, including computerizing records for towed and recovered vehicles.
"We've shored it up and are putting more accountability steps into it now," said Cmdr. Joseph Griffith, deputy director of corporate support. "The onus is on the officer to notify the owner."
A major problem for police was that their computers accepted only 15 of the 17 digits in a vehicle identification number. That was fixed a few months ago.
"That is very exciting," said Detective Daniel Straub of the auto theft unit. "We were popping champagne bottles over that."
A multiagency task force has written new towing regulations, which are awaiting final legal approval. The regulations will include penalties for rogue towers, or "bandit cranes," that yank cars off the street illegally for ransom. The regulations also call for the Department of Public Works to run a centralized computer tracking system for towing.
Some options include installing computers in tow trucks and offices or using two-way pagers or laptops.

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