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After ‘very troubling’ findings, Council panel votes to review San Diego towing policies to reduce inequity

San Diego police are towing thousands of cars a year that are disproportionately owned by poor people, and subsidizing the effort by as much as $2 million a year. The audit committee of the City Council wants that to change.

Committee members unanimously voted Friday to forward a newly released performance audit on the city’s towing program to the full City Council, with a plan to rewrite the rules to better serve lower-income people and families.

“Towing should be really a last resort,” audit committee member Toufic Tabshouri said at the hearing. “There should be some kind of notification mechanism (before towing). Even if you can afford to recover a vehicle and it doesn’t get sold, it’s aggravating.”

City Auditor Andy Hanau issued a report Monday that found the San Diego Police Department loses some $2 million a year on its towing program, and that cars belonging to poor people are confiscated much more often.

Under police department practices, officers most often order towing for cars that have been parked on a city street for more than 72 hours or whose registration is more than six months overdue.

In many cases, owners cannot afford to pay the tow and storage fees, and the cars are then sold at auction.

The audit recommended that city officials look at several ways to reduce the impact on people, such as reducing the fees or employing alternatives such as placing boots on vehicles.

“While towing provides public benefits, some towing types can also disproportionately affect vulnerable populations,” Hanau reported to the committee.

“For some people, a vehicle tow may result in the permanent loss of their vehicle, loss of employment, loss of access to education and medical care and other consequences.”

While the number of vehicles towed by the city has been declining in recent years — from 28,000 in 2017 to about 17,000 last year — the number of people who do not get their cars back is significant.

Hanau said almost 32,000 vehicles that were towed were sold at auction between July 2016 and March 2022.

The sales cost both the city and contractors money because the proceeds do not cover expenses, the audit found. The cost to San Diego taxpayers is at least $2 million a year, the report said.

Councilwoman Vivian Moreno noted that 45 percent of the tows happened in Council District 8, which she represents.

“It’s very troubling, and I want to make sure the city is taking action,” she said. “It’s just an anomaly to me that we are subsidizing this program, and yet we are directly impacting people’s livelihoods and lives.”

Councilmember Stephen Whitburn, the committee chair who sought the audit in response to complaints from residents, made a motion to meet with police and other city officials to develop a more equitable process going forward.

“Towing is a public benefit, but it can be harmful to poor people,” he said. “I requested this audit after hearing enforcement stories from individuals actually losing their vehicles, and I wanted to better understand this issue.”

The effort will be coordinated by the District 3 office, Whitburn said, with input from the chief operating officer, police chief and other stakeholders.

No timetable was scheduled for when specific policy recommendations will be brought to the council.

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