- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 23, 2001

Having bilked motorists for decades with their outrageous parking-enforcement policies, D.C. officials came up with a new twist quite a while back. Here's how it worked. Your car is stolen, and you call the police, checking in daily to see if it has been recovered. Unbeknownst to you, it has indeed been found and towed by a private towing company that was called by police. Problem is, there is no police record of the tow company having been called. When you finally find this out, days, perhaps months later, the tow company refuses to release your vehicle until you have paid exorbitant storage fees. Similar scenarios happened to motorists involved in accidents, too. And, get this: Sometimes the officer had a financial stake in the towing companies. The scams were uncovered in a damning report by the D.C. Office of the Inspector General in March, and in a series of articles by this newspaper. Finally, D.C. officials have gotten around to doing something but surely not enough about the corruption.
"Investigators found that some police officers and civilian employees used their positions of authority to further their private towing companies," John Drake reported in The Washington Times in August. "For example, one civilian police employee towed cars to a police building during his shift, then used his private towing truck to impound 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."
What's more, these scams went unchecked primarily for two reasons. For one, the Metropolitan Police Department's tracking system for stolen vehicles is "antiquated and not functional," the inspector general's report said. For another thing, the report cited "significant deficiencies" in the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs' investigation and enforcement of towing violations. "D.C. Council members said constituents have complained for at least a decade about stolen cars being recovered and towed to private impound lots without the owners of the vehicles being notified," Matthew Cella reported just this week. "The owners then accrued huge bills as the cars languished on lots for weeks and often months." Of course, insurance companies lost out as well, but that is another story.
At this juncture, the city's focus is revising municipal laws regarding tow-truck operators everything from how they are licensed to how much they charge. While all businesses licensed in the District must meet certain standards and criteria, the city has no business telling any business how much it can or cannot charge its customers. Free markets simply do no such thing. Besides, the fees, per se, were not the problem. The problems, as the inspector general pointed out, were the inappropriate and in some cases illegal actions taken by D.C. police officers and civilian employees of the police department.
In fact, the inspector general recommends that "officers are held accountable," that the police department consider prohibiting officers from moonlighting as parking enforcers and that it reform its stolen-vehicle recovery policies. That all sounds good particularly the parts about holding officers accountable.

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