Tow calls going out over Philadelphia police laptops

Posted: July 23, 2010

Cops yesterday began dispatching accident calls via laptop computers in police cruisers instead of over police radio in an attempt to thwart wreck-chasers who eavesdrop, then rush to tow jobs.

Councilman Frank Rizzo said he made the suggestion to Jack Gaittens, deputy police commissioner of organizational support services, following heightened violence this week in the wreck-chasing business.

Gaittens said he tried laptop dispatching while working as an inspector in Northwest Detectives, where they had issues with wreck-chasers.

"It works; it's not a problem," he said. "The same information [police] get out over the air, they'll get out over a computer in the car."

Wreck-chasers are towers who use unscrupulous means to get to the scene of an accident first and claim the job for a particular auto-body shop. They usually learn of accidents by listening to police scanners and often arrive at the scene before cops.

A rotational-towing system is the law in Philadelphia, but if a driver signs a contract with a tower before police arrive, authorities can't override it.

Rizzo, who said he's fought against wreck-chasers since taking office and sponsored the rotational-towing legislation, said that's just the kind of loophole chasers have repeatedly exploited.

Gaittens said it would be hard for chasers to crack the new system.

"I don't know how they're going to get around this unless they buy an MDC [mobile data computer] of their own and unless they get into our network," he said. "But I won't rule anything out completely. They can be resourceful."

He said it was an easy change. Before, the radio room would wait until a cop got to the scene and radio back in for a tow. Now, the dispatcher asks the caller if the vehicles are blocking a highway or sidewalk, if there is a safety concern and if a tow is needed. Then the dispatcher contacts the next tow company in the rotation and dispatches police officers, Gaittens said.

Although it was too early to provide any statistics on the change yesterday, Gaittens said he hadn't heard any complaints.

Towing is a big industry in Philadelphia, where last year 4,392 accidents required at least one tow, according to police statistics. As of last Friday, 2,635 accidents have required a tow this year.

What's normally a dangerous business got bloody on Monday, when Jose LaTorre Jr., 40, son of the owner of J & Son's Auto Body, allegedly shot a rival tow-truck driver from Mystical Complete Auto Service, when that driver allegedly tried to take LaTorre's claimed tow job.

Two days later, 13 cars at J & Son's were torched and at least six bullets were fired at Mystical's office building.

Police have not made arrests in either case. LaTorre Jr. surrendered to police shortly before 7 last night, police spokesman Lt. Frank Vanore said. Criminal charges were likely to be filed against him early today, Vanore added.

Ron Bressler, president of the Pennsylvania Towing Association, who lives in Morgantown, Berks County, said he "can't fathom" the violence that's plaguing Philadelphia towing.

"In rural areas of the state, nobody would think about going to an accident unless you're called," he said. "I certainly would have to believe this is an inner-city type thing."

Staff writer David Gambacorta contributed to this report.

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