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Feds Investigating Bell Over Towing Policy

Update: See below, with proper credit to La Opinion. The Times reports that the Justice Department is investigating Bell over possible civil rights violations related to its policy of "profiling for impounds," a practice revealed by LA Weekly last month whereby police would troll the streets looking for cars that seemed like good candidates to be towed and impounded.

The money was needed to fill city coffers to pay the exorbitant salaries of the City Council, who were each making nearly $100,000 per year, as well as Robert Rizzo, the city manager who retired in disgrace this summer after it was revealed he was making nearly $800,000 per year in income and nearly as much in benefits.

The Times points to its own reporting from earlier this week, which noted the aggressive towing policy and the fact that Bell charges $300 for an unlicensed motorists to retrieve their impounded car, which is triple what Los Angeles County and other cities charge. The Times also reported that in the last fiscal year, the city expected to make more than $770,000 from fees related to people getting their cars out of the impound lot. Plus, one towing company had an exclusive contract -- never good.

And while the Times should be lauded for its Bell coverage, having broken the story of the outrageous salaries, this might be a good time to note that it was the Weekly that had the first extensive (add: English language) reporting on the towing policy, a fact unmentioned by the Times. But as long as the truth gets out there, we're fine with it. (As LA Observed points out, and as the Weekly's Dennis Romero has as well, La Opinion broke Bell police stories July 20 and August 1. Kudos to La Opinion and apologies for missing this on the first go around.)

Here's the lede of that August 12 Weekly story:

Sometime in early 2009, patrol officers for the Bell Police Department were given an ultimatum: If they didn't help fill city coffers by stepping up their towing and impounding of cars, Bell would have to lay off four fellow officers.

That order followed a decade of similar edicts pushing an abusive impound policy that came down from Robert Rizzo...

And then this:

The problems all started with Rizzo, who interfered increasingly in police business in the late 90s, before beginning to push for car impounds around 2001 or 2002, Owens said.

For a time Owens was impounding five, six, even seven cars a day. "You're doing nothing all day but looking for impounds," he said.

The officers had a term for it: "Profiling for impounds." It wasn't racial or ethnic profiling, officers said -- Bell is 90 percent Latino.

They figured cars in some disrepair were more likely to be driven by an unlicensed driver, which made it an easy impound. "We looked for piece of shit cars," said one Bell officer, who fears retribution and so was granted anonymity to speak freely.

An ACLU lawyer we interviewed said the practice was likely unconstitutional.

Read the whole impound story here.


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