‘We felt really powerless’: Drivers say police favoritism lets business cash in on crashes

Public records show two local police departments are favoring one towing business in a system drivers say is costing them more money and taking away their choices.

“We felt really powerless,” Gus Bostdorf said, describing his experience after another car hit his in Camp Hill.

Bostdorf’s car had a few dents. He says he was able to drive it over to a quiet, residential street and legally park it on the side of the road. He wanted to drive it home, but he says Camp Hill Police Chief Doug Hockenberry told him his car needed to be towed.

Pennsylvania law generally allows the driver to choose a towing company “in consultation with law enforcement and designate where the vehicle is to be towed.” However, the law is not clear as to what kind of “consultation” is required.

“We do have AAA towing,” Bostdorf said. “So we get 100 free miles. So we were just going to get it towed ourselves to our house, but Hockenberry, he insisted we use their towing service.”

That service, G.A. Smith Towing, took the car to its lot, not to Bostdorf’s house. Bostdorf says he had a hard time getting his car back.

“They said that they had to keep the car there until the police report was issued,” Bostdorf said.

Bostdorf’s insurance company questioned that because there was no criminal investigation. One week later, Bostdorf got his car, plus a $300 bill for a 1.6-mile tow and a $100 storage fee. He says he went back and forth with G.A. Smith but still felt the bill was too high.

Bostdorf says he went to Hockenberry and got nowhere.

“We definitely felt kind of taken advantage of,” Bostdorf said. “We were forced into it.”

The fight for public records

After hearing similar stories about West Shore Regional Police, ABC27 obtained a copy of a memo naming G.A. Smith as the “primary towing vendor” West Shore Regional Police shall contact. Several sources within both police departments tell ABC27 that Camp Hill Chief Doug Hockenberry and West Shore Regional Chief Mike Hope rolled out those directives after a mechanic they knew got a job at G.A. Smith.

ABC27 filed Right to Know requests for towing information. Both departments refused to provide the records. ABC27 appealed to the Office of Open Records and won (click here and here to read the final determinations from the Office of Open Records). Camp Hill continued to fight the Office of Open Records’ decision, spending more tax dollars by refusing to turn over the records. West Shore did release the records.

Those records show in the two years before instructing officers to call G.A. Smith, the company towed 3.4 percent of West Shore crashes. Since the directive to officers, G.A. Smith has responded to 97 percent of crashes, towing 223 out of 230 crashes over a five-year span.

West Shore Regional Police Commission and Camp Hill Borough Council meeting minutes show G.A. Smith made donations to both police departments after getting all that business.

ABC27 heard from five other drivers, saying they too received high bills from the only game in town.

The price sheet G.A. Smith sent to West Shore Regional Police lists towing at $150 and up, and storage as between $20 and $45 per day.

The drivers ABC27 spoke with were charged more than $400 and $500 for tows that were .1 miles and 1.7 miles. This email sent to West Shore Regional Police Chief Mike Hope shows a $580 charge from G.A. Smith.

ABC27 found reports for crashes that happened right in front of a different towing company, and police still called G.A. Smith to tow (click here, here, and here to view the reports).

“The only way to do it fairly”

Hockenberry, Hope, and the owner of G.A. Smith did not return calls and emails asking for comment.

However, 11 other police departments did call back. All said they do everything they can to let drivers choose their own towing companies. When drivers don’t have specific preferences, or in cases in which the car is blocking traffic and needs to be cleared quickly, 10 departments have a list of multiple towing vendors to call, and the 11th is trying to switch over to a multiple-vendor system.

Five of those departments use a strict rotation, including Newberry Township Police Chief John Snyder.

“It’s the only way to do it fairly,” Snyder said. “If you allow officers to call anybody they want, or if you allow certain companies to get more than the other, it creates that impropriety appearance.”

Snyder says he can’t speak for other departments, but says his system keeps any one towing company from becoming too comfortable and allows him to make sure drivers are treated fairly.

“You don’t want a victim of an accident or someone who’s involved in an accident to be victimized twice,” Snyder said.

Other towing companies

ABC27 called seven other towing companies in the area. None wanted to go on camera. Four spoke on background, saying they are concerned about police retaliation against their businesses. All four said towing prices can vary, and police incident towing tends to be more expensive because of all the equipment that needs to be on standby.

However, they also say they have the same qualifications as G.A. Smith and have asked to do Camp Hill and West Shore Police towing.

Through a Right to Know request, ABC27 obtained applications local towing companies sent to West Shore Regional Police (click here, here, here, and here to view the applications).

The towing companies that spoke on background say they feel Camp Hill’s and West Shore’s use of a single vendor hurts their businesses and means higher prices for drivers.

The Pennsylvania Towing Association

The Pennsylvania Towing Association is a not-for-profit membership organization that represents the interests of towing companies across the state.

“It’s good to have a rotation so that it doesn’t give the appearance of wrong-doing on anybody’s part,” Executive Director Dan Spies said.

Spies does caution against knee-jerk reactions to the “sticker shock” drivers can experience with towing bills.

“It’s not always going to be a standard fee,” Spies said. “There are circumstances involved which make the towing bill sometimes higher than other times.” Cars that are flipped over or stuck in ditches are, by nature, going to be more expensive to tow.

Spies points to Pennsylvania’s Towing and Towing Storage Facility Standards Act of 2012 as the ultimate resource for drivers and towing companies. For example, the law says a towing company cannot refuse to release a towed vehicle during regular hours of operation unless police specifically put a hold on the car. The law also says a towing company cannot refuse to let you access your car during regular hours of operation and then charge you a storage fee for the time it refuses you that access.

The 11 police departments ABC27 spoke with say they only ask a towing company to put a hold on a driver’s vehicle in specific cases, such as criminal investigations. When it comes to “standard crashes” requiring no further investigation, all 11 departments said they do not ask the towing company to put a hold on the vehicle.

Spies says in general, a driver involved in a standard crash that has no further investigation should raise an eyebrow if a towing company insists on holding onto the vehicle until a police report is issued.

“Just like every industry out there, there are some people that give the industry a black eye, and there are others that make it shine,” Spies said.

Your choices and your money

Pennsylvania’s Towing and Towing Storage Facility Standards Act of 2012 says drivers can choose their own towing companies in consultation with law enforcement unless the vehicle owner’s tow truck operator of choice cannot respond to the scene in a timely fashion, and if the vehicle is a hazard, impedes the flow of traffic, or is in an illegal location in the opinion of law enforcement.

Bostdorf’s car was legally pulled over to the side of a residential street after his crash. The police report says his car had steering problems, but Bostdorf says that isn’t true. Now he’s questioning why his car had to be towed at all, and why he wasn’t permitted to use his choice of a towing company.

“It bothers me that people were brushing off the expense of all this,” Bostdorf said. “They just kept saying that insurance would cover it.”

Although Bostdorf’s insurance company did cover his towing bill, that’s not necessarily the case for all insured drivers. Insurance representatives who spoke to ABC27 on background because they were not authorized to speak on behalf of their companies say the “insurance will cover it” mentality can lead to over-billing and eventually higher insurance costs, which drivers ultimately pay.

“What we went through, we felt like we were kind of exploited,” Bostdorf said. “I don’t want anyone to feel that way.”

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