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, who resigned as city manager last month after the Los Angeles Times revealed he had been making nearly $800,000 per year.
The account comes from Officer Kurt Owens and was confirmed by other Bell police officers.
Attorney General Jerry Brown and Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley have opened a wide ranging investigation of the city, its opaque finances and potential voter fraud there.
Owens, who is vice president of the Bell Police Officers Association, described to the Weekly a dysfunctional police department, frequently in disarray. The police department has cycled through six chiefs in a decade, each one a pawn of Rizzo or pushed out because he refused to become one, Owens said. The last chief, Randy Adams, was making more than $450,000 per year before he also resigned last month.
Patrol officers, meanwhile, were forced to act as the city's de facto tax collectors via the questionable impound policy.
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.
Officers had another term for all the impound work: “Impound roulette.” As in Russian roulette. The push to impound cars required more stops, and each stop brought the risk of something going awry or turning violent.
“You never know when you're going to stop that one guy. You're rolling the dice,” Owens said.
“It sacrificed officer safety,” said the second officer.
Although there was no quota in writing, officers knew that a day with less than three impounds would bring trouble, they said. They also had impound checkpoints on some days, as well as “traffic detail” — a euphemism for two officers doing nothing but impound work for their entire shift.
Hector Villagra, legal director for the ACLU of Southern California, said the impound policy was constitutionally dubious. The police can seize a car only under the “community caretaker” exception to the Constitution's Fourth Amendment ban on unlawful seizure. Police must show they had to seize the car to protect the public from harm, Villagra said. If they can't show they were protecting the public by seizing the cars, they have violated Constitutional rights. Any hint of a quota — however oblique — could be read as a policy to encourage the officers to violate the Fourth Amendment, Villagra said.
As for “impound profiling,” Villagra said police have to have reasonable suspicion of some illegal activity for a stop. “You can't stop in the hopes you might be able to impound. That's ridiculous,” he said.
The officers hated the policy, and after a time, Owens refused to enact it.
But officers said the pressure was intense, which is easily explained: For the city, the impounds were lucrative. Unlicensed drivers had to pay $350 just to recover their cars from the impound lot. Drivers whose licenses were suspended couldn't pick up their car — if it was registered to them alone — for 30 days, with an additional $27 per day storage fee. This, in a city where the median household income was $9,000 below the rest of California — before the recession hit immigrant communities especially hard.
All told, as the Times first reported, the city collected $574,000 from “unlicensed driver release” revenues during the most recent fiscal year.
The officers sometimes wondered where all the money went. While command staff were making healthy six-figure salaries and getting new cars and equipment, the rank-and-file were thinned out and left with aging cars and gear, Owens said. The department had more than 20 officers at one time, but is now in the low teens.
A current officer said they were told there was no money for quarterly training at the firing range because the city could not pay for ammunition, overtime or the range rental fee.