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The East Bay's Tow Hustle

Towing companies are taking cars illegally, and it's costing people. One of the worst offenders is PPI Towing of Oakland.

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PHOTO BY DANIEL ARAUZ/FLICKRCC
  • Photo by Daniel Arauz/FlickrCC

The grand jury made eight recommendations regarding proper mechanisms for oversight and accountability, such as creating a compliance director position, an audit of the towing contract with B&B, and the ability to track complains, which the city and OPD agreed to in late 2014. The grand jury also recommended that the department keep better records related to its towing operations.

The Express obtained more than three years-worth of data for department-initiated tows in Oakland and found that, between Jan. 1, 2016 and May 30, 2018, nearly 36,500 vehicles had been towed. APT did approximately 22,000 of them, netting the city more than $1.5 million in revenue.

According to California law, vehicles can be towed off the street by law enforcement for a variety of reasons, but a breakdown of the total tows reveals that OPD appears to be targeting low-income motorists from East Oakland. Approximately 11,750 cars, roughly one-third of the total, were towed for having an expired registration over six months. Roughly one-fifth of those tows included additional citations for violations such as blocking driveways and being parked for more than 72 hours. The second most common tow was for vehicles identified as a hazard to traffic (approximately 5,780). Stolen vehicles, by contrast, constituted the third most common reason (approximately 3,845) for being towed.

The details included in the tow records allowed for 26,000 of them to be placed on a map of Oakland, which, when analyzed for frequency, revealed that OPD tows cars more often from neighborhoods in East Oakland, which are predominantly Black and Latino communities, than anywhere else in its jurisdiction.

Officer Johnna Watson, spokesperson for OPD, said that this is because of an unusually high rate of cars that are abandoned in those neighborhoods, adding that residents of East Oakland have voiced their concerns about the issue during community meetings.

"We have a tremendous amount of abandoned vehicles in the city, and we're not sure why," she said. "They're essentially being dumped here."

Watson added that the department understands some residents might not have the resources to cover their registration fee, which is why cars are given 72-hour notice before they are towed.

Some car owners, though, don't get the benefit of a three-day grace period.



Due to the regular travel in her job as a real estate appraiser, Frankie Hartwell makes it a habit of taking pictures whenever she parks in Oakland. It served her well when she, her fiancé, and mother-in-law went to enjoy themselves at First Friday in August in Uptown Oakland.

Hartwell said that when they parked by Kingston 11 near West Grand Avenue sometime after 6 p.m., there were only two tow-away signs, at either end of the street. Still, they took pictures of where their car was parked and went out to enjoy their night. When they returned around 10:30 p.m., she said their car was replaced with a mobile police station, including office desks and computers.

The car had been towed, and despite the fact that she had photos proving the car was parked in an apparently open area, Hartwell said OPD officers told her there was nothing they could do. So, the next morning, they went to the police station where she said she was told to expect to pay $285 to retrieve her car from APT. It ended up being over $700, she said, after the tow company charged her mother-in-law several additional fees.

The tow was successfully appealed, Hartwell said, after they showed the photos she took to the city, but it's being reimbursed piecemeal. Regardless, she thinks the whole system is designed to criminalize poverty.

Other individuals the Express talked to who had their cars towed by APT said that their cars were damaged in the process and that personal property has been stolen from their vehicles as a result of police-initiated tows.

"I've lived in Oakland my whole life, and I know a hustle when I see it," Hartwell said of the towing contract between OPD and APT. "And this is a hustle." 

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