‘Bell impounded cars to boost coffers, police say’ (September 6)

The following is an analysis that is part of a graduate thesis. Learn more.

This story addressed two issues concerning an increase in car-towing and impounds by Bell’s police department. All sides agreed that in the handful of years before the reporter’s investigation, Bell police attempted to enforce traffic laws more strenuously. The issues the reporter faced, then, were: “Why did Bell try to impound more cars?” and “What was the effect of the increase in impounds on the community?”

First, why did Bell try to impound more cars? The reporter’s conclusion was offered in paragraphs 1 and 2:

As city administrators’ salaries were rocketing upward in Bell and council members’ stipends were among the highest in the state, the city went on an aggressive push to increase municipal revenue by impounding cars in the city, police officers say.

Officers in this poor, largely immigrant community were pushed to have more cars towed and, at one point, were given what some patrol officers said amounted to a daily quota. Several officers said they were reprimanded when they failed to find cars to tow and were warned that City Hall jobs could be at risk if impounds did not accelerate.

So the conclusion was that the city tried to impound more cars to “increase municipal revenue.” The reporter also offered a bit of evidence in the lede by citing the existence of statements of police officers, seemingly in support of the conclusion.

What other evidence did the reporter offer to support the claim that the city increased impounds so that it could increase revenue?

A few paragraphs in, she outlined how much money impounds bring to Bell and what the city expected to “make” from fees for releasing cars. She did not offer the financial details as explicit support for her claim, but in the interest of charity, if the details did provide evidence for it then they should be noted.

The financial data, however, did not show an “aggressive push” to increase revenue. If anything, they suggested a failed push: “In the last fiscal year, the city expected to make more than $770,000 from release fees, which would amount to between 2,000 and 2,500 impounds per year. The previous year, the department made more than $834,000” (6) — or a year-on-year decrease in revenue. But more importantly, as the reporter showed, the fees Bell received varied by the type of offense and the number of days the car remained impounded (7, 9). So showing only a revenue amount would not necessarily imply an increase or decrease in the number of cars impounded, which would have more convincingly showed that the city had “aggressively” pushed for more impounds.

Additional possible evidence came from quoting (occasionally paraphrasing) officers who said they were continually pressured to impound more cars (4, 16, 18, 19, 21). But again, these quotes confirmed only what all sides acknowledged: That the city attempted to impound more cars. What was at issue was why the increase happened, and none of the quotes spoke to its motivation.

The seemingly most direct piece of evidence supporting the conclusion was a reference to James Corcoran,

a former Bell police officer who has filed a wrongful-dismissal suit against the city, [who] complained to city leaders in 2009 that the department was towing cars to generate revenue. The majority of vehicles that were seized were not a danger to the community, he said. (23).

The reporter said that Corcoran told “city leaders” in 2009 that the impounds were meant to increase revenue, not seize cars endangering the city. But the reporter did not tell readers anything about the conversation itself, such as what the city said in return, or in what sort of manner Corcoran “complained” to officials — in a meeting? By letter? Readers weren’t even told how the reporter knew about the complaint or its content to begin with. The reference had no attribution.

Readers were told that Corcoran “filed a wrongful-dismissal suit against the city,” but were not given any details about the content or status of the suit. For example, was the suit resolved? What did Corcoran allege was the reason he was terminated? It would be easy to read the paragraph as claiming that Corcoran’s suit was related to his “complaint” about the towing practices, but this would be a lazy reading, as the reporter never actually connected the two.

The reporter did not cite much evidence beyond her initial reference to police officers. But she faced an additional problem in not adequately responding to a counterargument offered by Bell Police Capt. Anthony Miranda, “who has helped lead the department since Chief Randy Adams resigned in July.”

Miranda “said the goal [of the increase] was to make the city an undesirable place for gang members by cracking down on traffic enforcement.” The reporter did not present any testimony or evidence to counter Miranda’s claim, and even provided some support for it: In transitioning to a second issue in the story she began, “the enforcement policy may have been aimed at gang members and undesirables, but it put a heavy burden on others too” (10). At the least, this was tantamount to acknowledging that multiple justifications exist for the increase; at worst it caused her to contradict herself outright.

So the reporter’s conclusion about this issue rested on, basically, an argument from authority. The evidence for the claim that Bell impounded cars to increase revenue was “police officers say.” But no police officers were listed or quoted as actually saying as such, and none of what might be considered evidence for the claim actually furthered it. Readers would then have to accept the conclusion from that evidence only on the basis of the reporter’s authority.

What about issue 2: “What was the effect of the increase in impounds on the community?” Here the reporter offered two conclusions.

One conclusion was just quoted: The policy “put a heavy burden on others.” The evidence for this conclusion was an interview with Dr. Mary Romo, “who said she witnessed the effect of the aggressive towing practice on the community” (10):

Her patients, some pregnant or in need of medical attention, had their cars towed and impounded so frequently while en route to her office or the hospital that she started keeping track, adding names, dates and ticket information to a folder she kept next to her patients’ medical files. She said she complained to the city but never got an answer.

“This is a real problem. It’s not just my patients, it’s everybody in the community that’s suffering,” said Romo, an obstetrician and gynecologist. “It’s a poor community.”

As saddening and troubling as Romo’s testimony is, it was difficult to discern the “effect of the aggressive towing practices” it indicated. By the plain language of the paraphrases and quotations, Romo said simply she witnessed an increase in towing, which was not an “effect” of the plan but the plan itself. The reader was probably supposed to make the descriptive assumption (and must, for the argument to check out) that most of the people who were towed near Romo’s clinic were wrongly judged to be illegally parked, or that those getting medical attention deserved an exemption from parking rules. Fair enough, but no mention of why these assumptions should be given was accepted.

The reporter also concluded that an effect of the impound crackdown was that the police department became “heavily focused on traffic enforcement, often to the exclusion of other problems.” Once again, “officers said” was quickly offered as evidence (13).

Unlike the conclusion offered for the first issue, here the reporter offered some quotes from officers germane to her conclusion. Officer Kurt Owens said that the police “‘developed an intuition’ for unlicensed drivers” (15), which supported the “heavily focused” part of the conclusion, assuming that officers could not have developed any such intuition without having to spend time on it. Quotes from other officers also supported the conclusion that there was a heavy focus on impounds (18–19, 21).

But the reporter provided no evidence to support the second part of the conclusion, that the focus on traffic enforcement “often” came at “the exclusion of other problems.” No ignored problems were cited and no officers were quoted discussing anything they should have been doing (although Sgt. Art Jimenez is quoted making a slightly stronger claim, that “Rather than being police officers and being proactive looking for crime, we were out there looking for vehicles to impound” (4)).

Necessarily, of course, if police officers’ focus went up in one area it must go down somewhere else, ceterus paribus. But the “down” could be many things, not just “problems” (paperwork, for instance, or some other type of minor offense). Therefore, readers would have had good reason to conclude that the reporter had not justified all the points of her claim regarding this second issue.

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