The LA Way

“The city's Official Police Garages are a go-to metro model”

By Andrea Evans (T&R Footnotes, Sept. 2009)

There are 5.2 million automobiles registered in Los Angeles County, according to the California DMV and the Federal Highway Administration. Only seven states have more registered cars than Los Angeles County: California (14.6 million not including LA County), Florida (8.9),Texas (7.7),New York (7.6), Ohio (6.7), Illinois (6.4), and Pennsylvania (6.2).The Los Angeles area is also famous for traffic gridlock. A research study in 2001 by the Texas Transportation Institute found that people traveling the roads on LA/Orange Counties experienced a total of 93 hours of delay per person annually. This was the highest among any metropolitan area in America.

The City of Los Angeles itself (LA) is perhaps the car capital of the nation. The second most populated city in the U.S. with approximately 3.7 million residents, LA extends over 465 square miles, with 6,400 miles of streets, 40,000 intersections, and 160 miles of freeway. According to the California DMV, as of January 1, 2007, there were nearly 2.5 million registered vehicles in the city of LA, more than 1.9 million of them being automobiles.

The City of Los Angeles Official Police Garages (LAOPG) is the model program that many government administrators go to for solutions regarding municipal towing and storage issues.

For example, when California lawmakers were drafting statewide towing regulations, they repeatedly consulted the LA Police Commission about their regulations and common practices and procedures for the Official Police Garages (OPGs).

According to Detective Benjamin Jones, the Official Police Garage Coordinator for LA, in 2008 the city police commission received inquiries from 10 to 12 different metropolitan areas nationally and a few from abroad requesting information about the OPG structure, organization, and operation. According to Jones, the OPGs are an effective blend of public/private partnership.

They consist of 18 privately owned towing companies that contract with the city to serve the towing and recovery and impound storage needs for the 21 divisions of the LA Police Department and Department of Transportation. OPGs help to protect public safety and facilitate traffic flow on major highways, city streets, and residential areas.

The LA Police Commission regulates the OPGs regarding state and local compliance and consumer complaints, and sets uniform policies, procedures, and rates. The OPGs provide the city with first-priority 24/7 service; OPG contracts are for five years with renewal options.

Highly Regulated

“Selection of an OPG is by a request for-proposal (RFP) process,” said Detective Jones. “Documentation includes business and financial plans, contract compliance regarding equipment, personnel, insurance, training, and everything related to providing first-priority service 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to the city.”

Proposals are evaluated and investigated by the police commission. The board of the LA Police Commission selects the best candidate and the city council approves and submits an ordinance for the mayor’s approval. OPGs are highly regulated. “It’s vital to public confidence and maintaining good business performance,” said Eric Rose, LAOPG Executive Director. Detectives from the police commission conduct surprise inspections on a monthly basis. Their targets can be anything from equipment and safety inspections to reviews of personnel records, invoices, and computer data systems. Inspections include employee appearance and uniforms as well.

“Even though OPGs are private companies,” Rose said, “if a potential hire doesn’t pass the criminal background check, based on the contract, the person is not employable.”

California state law regulates tow truck equipment requirements, and municipalities cannot change those regulations. According to Detective Jones, “the additions we have are to protect the citizens of LA from unscrupulous tow operators, protection of property, and the right-to- reclaim vehicle complaints against tow companies.

Those are handled in the same manner as internal affairs complaints.” “It’s a very good marriage of free enterprise with a hint of civic responsibility,” said Greg Baker, owner of Ross Baker Towing, OPG for the Devonshire and Mission Divisions. “We’ve always referred to ourselves as ‘quasi city.’ It’s very true. We have to act like we are almost city-owned.”

Traffic Demands

The Official Police Garages were organized in 1938 to clear traffic and handle accidents. According to the web site www.opgla.com, the OPGs today include 472 full-time employees, including drivers, dispatchers, and support personnel. In 2008, OPGs towed and stored more than 165,800 vehicles and generated $15 million in revenue.

“By having 20 OPGs (18 light-duty and two heavy-duty), we’ve overcome the geographic challenge of the City of LA to cover the entire city,” said Rose. “For most places in the City of LA, response time is about eight minutes. For the geographic size of LA, that’s remarkable.” Heavy traffic demands make moving around the city difficult, especially on the freeway system within the sprawling city. “We have one of the largest square-mile areas,” Greg Baker said.

“It’s either 54 or 56 square miles and our response time fluctuates between nine and 11 minutes. With traffic and everything in LA, this is great. We make sure our trucks are zoned in the right area. We call it staging. It’s one of the best ways of combating LA traffic.” Dispatching contributes to fast response time, too. Every police department and Department of Transportation section has its own radio frequency. According to Rose, more than 90 percent of police and DOT cars have computers, yet over 90 percent of police officers’ tow requests are verbal, by radio. OPGs monitor their designated police division’s radio frequency and hear the officer’s request to the central communication center.

Usually the officer’s request prompts OPGs to roll to the scene; then dedicated operators at the PD and DOT communication centers log the call and officially dispatch the information to the OPG. “Ninety-five percent of the time (communications center dispatch) calls occur within two minutes of the officer’s initial verbal request,” Rose said. “This redundancy (verbal and dispatch calls) are for consistency in logging and assigning the call by LAPD and DOT. It’s all part of the checks and balances for the traffic management and communication computer system.”

Because each OPG area is clearly defined, the designated OPG can roll on the officer’s radioed request. This practice consequently reduces response time.

Quick Response

The OPG program also has a quick response when developing and implementing technology. The Vehicle Impound Information Center (VIIC) provides public and city personnel online access to information regarding the city’s vehicle impounds. It’s a free service available on www.opgla.com where the public can locate their vehicles; determine costs, and release-procedure information. VIIC was developed five years ago at no cost to the city and took less than six months from initial idea to system launch on the Internet. According to Rose, the good working relationship with the City of LA regulatory agencies facilitated the process. “We are a private enterprise,” he added, “and with an understanding of the requirements, the right (information technology) programmers, and an entrepreneurial spirit, we moved forward quickly in response to the city.”

“VIIC is helpful in a number of ways,” said Detective Jones. “We’ve very pleased with the public information point. It also helps the police department do spot checks on tow companies regarding impounds and charges. Third, it reduces police department time answering calls about impound vehicles.”

The LAOPG web site provides significant public information regarding “bandit towers” and it outlines a variety of their common practices. The site explains the direct and indirect costs to consumers as a result of bandit towing, from lost city revenue to increasing insurance premiums for private citizens.

The web site www.opgla.com characterizes professional towers as hardworking, law-abiding citizens who are moral and ethical and follow an accepted code of conduct. The site defines proper private-property towing practices and offers key recommendations for tightening regulation and enforcement.

“I think there were some unintended consequences as a result of federal transportation deregulation,” said Rose. “We are increasingly seeing local law enforcement finding ways to crack down on bandit towers to take these bad operators off the street.” “We monitor towing in the field on a regular basis,” explained Detective Jones. “Those without a license (a city towing permit), we arrest. Those conducting unscrupulous activities, we work with the Corruption, Fraud and Enforcement Section of the City Attorney’s Office and file criminal charges.”

“It’s important to remember these are 18 individual companies,” OPG Executive Director Rose said. Both the public and private sectors of this partnership agree that it’s a good working model. “Infractions are relatively minor,” said Detective Jones. “Most OPGs are protective of their contracts. Really, there’s little to complain about.”