Councilmember Rasmussen left office on January 1, 2016.
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Clearing a Path: Improving Seattle Police’s Towing Practices


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On November 12 a crash occurred on the West Seattle Bridge during morning rush hour. Our Fire and Police Departments immediately responded to the scene. There were no injuries, but the disabled vehicle blocked the eastbound left lane. A tow truck did not arrive for nearly ninety minutes, resulting in major delays across West Seattle as traffic backed up behind the crash. After the incident, I contacted the Seattle Police Department (SPD) and the Seattle Department of Transportation Director (SDOT) to ask why the tow took so long.

The Police provided me with the following summary:tow

  • 0623- Traffic unit T55 arrived on scene
  • 0624- Fire and Medics arrived on scene
  • 0625- Backing Units arrived on scene
  • 0632- Officer requested GT Towing for a private tow
  • 0634- GT called and cancelled and said the driver indicated they will call AAA themselves
  • 0703- Received a return call from AAA indicating they could not get a tow truck there for at least 2 hours
  • 0709- Officer made another request for ABC towing for a private tow
  • 0745- Tow truck arrived on scene

The Police also provided the following statement:

“Seattle police officers do not have authority when the driver is present to remove the vehicle with a city contracted tow company.  Additionally, officers cannot recommend a specific tow company over another, this is to ensure all tow companies have equal access to the job.

It may be worthwhile for Council to review limited authority for officers to order a tow if the vehicle(s) are blocking a limited access roadway or pre identified major arterial, this would take specific legislation followed by education and specific requirements for Law Enforcement to follow.” 

I double-checked with the Police Department and asked, “Do you mean to say that if an individual can reject the officer’s proposed towing company the Police have to wait until the person’s selected towing company shows up no matter how that affects traffic?” The answer from SPD was “yes.” I was told that the only way that policy could change was through legislation that had to be approved by the City Council!

I immediately requested the City Attorney to draft legislation to give the Police Department the authority needed to clear the scene as soon as possible. Within a day I learned from the City Attorney that the Police Department in fact already has the authority, as long as “the vehicle is impeding or is likely to impede the normal flow of vehicular or pedestrian traffic.”[1] In other words, no new legislation is needed.

I have since spoken with Police Chief O’Toole about what I had learned from the City Attorney and she assured me that she would have officers trained to eliminate the confusion. She will make it clear that SPD officers do have the authority to have a vehicle towed under such circumstances.

As we all know, our transportation network is so vulnerable that just a single crash at the wrong place and time can cause city-wide delays. The hours of delay that we have been experiencing on the SR-99 corridor and also on the West Seattle Bridge corridor are incredibly frustrating. One way the delays could be significantly reduced is through better procedures, training, and coordination to clear a collision.

In addition to working on this issue, on December 9 at 9:30 a.m. I will also be hosting a discussion in the Transportation Committee to learn more about the June 10 5½ hour closure of SR-99 and SDOT and SPD’s new emergency incident response plan for these types of major closures. As a West Seattle commuter, I understand first-hand the importance of resolving issues which prohibit the flow of traffic on the West Seattle Bridge in times of accident and cause needless time lost sitting in traffic.

I would like to thank each and every West Seattle resident who has taken the time to share detailed information about their experiences last week on the West Seattle Bridge.  I received a number of accounts of 90-minute delays, which simply isn’t acceptable.

 

[1] In fact, we already have an ordinance, SMC 11.30.040.A.1 which states, “A vehicle may be impounded with or without citation and without giving prior notice to its owner as required in Section 11.30.060 hereof only under the following circumstances: 1. When the vehicle is impeding or is likely to impede the normal flow of vehicular or pedestrian traffic.”  This would seem to authorize an officer to call for a police impound even if the driver is in attendance.  In addition, where a vehicle driver fails to promptly remove the vehicle, and is therefore in violation of RCW 46.61.560(2), a strong argument can be made that the police officer has the authority to call for a police impound.

 

Comments

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Comment from Kristen McKie
Time November 21, 2014 at 11:05 am

Mr. Rassmussen, as a Southworth ferry commuter who works in downtown Seattle I would also like to thank you for following up on this. I may not live in Seattle but there are thousands of ferry commuters from Vashon and the Kitsap Peninsula who rely on the West Seattle Bridge to get to our jobs in the city. Many thanks for your efforts to keep the traffic flowing. We appreciate it too!

Comment from Tod Rodman
Time November 21, 2014 at 11:14 am

Tom – thanks for digging into this. I am at a complete loss of understanding why the Mayor is not able to constructively and proactively respond to situations that fall under his duty as Executive.

Comment from Deb Barker
Time November 21, 2014 at 11:42 am

Tom – Thank you so much for posting your research and outcome of this situation. Do we know how long it would have taken GT towing to tow the vehicle that day IF they hadn’t been canceled by the vehicle owner?

Comment from Margelyn Carpenter
Time November 21, 2014 at 11:58 am

Thank you so much for straightening out this mess, and getting the SPD up-to-speed. Glad I voted for you, and having you as a neighbor.

Comment from Martin
Time November 21, 2014 at 12:06 pm

Thank you, Tom! This will brighten this Friday for all of us at WSTC.
Now on to the Spokane St. swing bridge!

Comment from Victoria Nelson
Time November 21, 2014 at 12:50 pm

Thank you for your prompt action on this issue!
WSTC Board Member

Comment from Tom Rasmussen
Time November 21, 2014 at 3:45 pm

You are welcome Victoria. It was quite an interesting experience. I spoke directly to the Police Chief about this and she will make sure that the officers have the correct information and training!

Tom

Comment from Tom Rasmussen
Time November 21, 2014 at 3:47 pm

You are welcome Martin. It just didn’t make any sense to me when a high ranking officer told me that they did not have that authority. It was quite an interesting experience. As you may know, I spoke directly to the Police Chief about this and she will make sure that the officers have the correct information and training!

Tom

Comment from Tom Rasmussen
Time November 21, 2014 at 3:49 pm

You are most welcome Margelyn and thanks for the kind comments. I too got stuck in that traffic jam and most of the others! I am doing all I can to improve the operations of the Departments in these emergencies. Thanks again.

Tom

Comment from Tom Rasmussen
Time November 21, 2014 at 4:08 pm

You are welcome Deb. Here is the timeline provided by the Police:
0623- Traffic unit T55 arrived on scene
0624- Fire and Medics arrived on scene
0625- Backing Units arrived on scene
0632- Officer requested GT towing for a private tow
0634- GT called and cancelled and said the driver indicated they will call AAA themselves
0703- Received a return call from AAA indicating they could not get a tow truck there for at least 2 hours
0709- Officer made another request for ABC towing for a private tow.
0745- Tow truck arrived on scene.

Looking at the timeline the Police gave me the officer called for a tow truck less than 10 minutes from arriving on the scene. Then, a couple of minutes later the towing company said that the driver of the stalled car cancelled the tow and said he or she would call AAA for a tow. So we don’t know how long it would have taken AAA to get a tow there but cancellation surely added to the delay.

Then, a while later AAA said that it would be TWO HOURS! You can see that the officer was trying to get a faster response and finally the tow truck arrived at 7:45 AM. What an ordeal for the officer and the public!

Anyway, I am glad that I was able to help clear up the confusion in the Police Department regarding their legal authority and fortunately now the Department knows that they do have the authority to call for a tow truck to clear the traffic and they do not have to wait for the driver’s “preferred” towing company!

Also, I spoke to the Police Chief about this and she said that she will make sure that the officers have the correct information and training! She was quite dismayed over this.

Thanks for asking.

Also, I would like to meet with you to talk about the neighborhood conservation district legislation I am working on to see how it might help with your work relating to the Junction inventory that I believe you are working on.

If you would like to do so would you write me at my office address then we can schedule a meeting? That e-mail address is: tom.rasmussen@seattle.gov.

Thanks again.

Tom

Comment from Tom Rasmussen
Time November 21, 2014 at 4:11 pm

You are welcome Tod. Yes this is an executive function but I do like to take action as quickly as possible. Fortunately I find the Departments are very responsive to a Councilmember’s requests.

Also, I am excited to continue to work on the Open Space Opportinty Fund Concept and now we know that the full Council supports our efforts. Thanks for your work on that. More to do of course.

Tom

Comment from Tom Rasmussen
Time November 21, 2014 at 4:13 pm

You are welcome. I am always happy to help Seattle’s neighbors who travel to our City too! Thanks for writing.

Tom

Comment from Kaos Distro
Time April 2, 2015 at 9:21 am

It’s good to see someone get involved and help. Unacceptable time scales originally though

Comment from Bill Thomas
Time May 11, 2015 at 8:09 pm

Good to know that this was solved right away. This should set a good example for us here in Denver.

Comment from Fred Summers
Time June 29, 2015 at 9:05 am

I think the safety of everyone involved in something like this is the priority. Understanding all the rules and exceptions must be difficult. I think that there could be better communication to towing companies in these cases. This is really interesting.

Comment from Drew Harrison
Time September 21, 2015 at 9:06 am

I had no idea the police could move the vehicle if necessary. In some states I know that police have to rely on the towing company unless someone is in immediate danger. I’ll have to keep this in mind the next time my car is in trouble. Thanks for the great info!

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