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‘What a nightmare’: How Philly police, parking authority, and tow companies lose cars while ‘courtesy’ towing

It’s an antiquated system that can be comically inefficient, plagued by vague and conflicting policies and shoddy recordkeeping.

Brian McEntee with his car on Kauffman Street in South Philadelphia. The former prosecutor's car was "courtesy towed" while he was out of town. After reporting it stolen, the car was eventually found a mile away from where it had been legally parked.
Brian McEntee with his car on Kauffman Street in South Philadelphia. The former prosecutor's car was "courtesy towed" while he was out of town. After reporting it stolen, the car was eventually found a mile away from where it had been legally parked.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

One day around noon in early October, Brian McEntee was walking down Queen Street in South Philadelphia to the spot where he had parked his Honda CR-V.

“It wasn’t there,” he said.

McEntee, a 39-year-old former assistant district attorney, did some amateur sleuthing. He found out from neighbors that legally parked vehicles had been towed from the block earlier that week — apparently without notice — for a historical marker dedication attended by Mayor Jim Kenney and other city officials.

Now, McEntee had two simple questions: Who took my car? Where is it now?

“There has to be some kind of paper trail,” the lawyer reasoned, “so someone knows where the heck the car went.”

He was wrong. No one in city government had any answers.

The Philadelphia Parking Authority told him to contact the Police Department. Neither agency had a record of towing his car. The police officer who came to his house also had no idea where it was but took McEntee on a 45-minute ride-along search in the back of her cruiser — to no avail.

Turns out McEntee had been “courtesy towed,” a Philly euphemism (origin unknown) used to describe when a vehicle is parked legally but must be “relocated” (official term) by police, the parking authority, or a private tow company to clear the street for an event, repaving, or utility work.

It’s an antiquated system that can be comically inefficient, plagued by vague and conflicting policies and shoddy recordkeeping. Or, as a police spokesperson recently put it, “logistical hurdles.”

After the unsuccessful search for his Honda, McEntee was forced to file a stolen-vehicle report and an insurance claim. He started thinking about buying a new car.

“I was about to give up,” he said. “Then …”

Before finalizing the insurance claim, McEntee took a bike ride down to Pennsport. And there it was. Under I-95. About a mile from where he’d parked it.

“I saw my car,” he said. “I was like, ‘That’s it!’ ”

For each courtesy tow, handwritten driver logs are supposed to be faxed to the police radio room and district headquarters, then entered into a searchable database, according to police. The idea is that exasperated vehicle owners will call 911 at some point, and then an officer can call up the database and assist them in finding it.

It doesn’t always work that way.

Sometimes, the information isn’t promptly relayed to the Police Department. Other times, such as in McEntee’s case, there is no record of the tow at all, leading to erroneous stolen-vehicle reports that waste police resources. Frustrated drivers are left to wander the surrounding blocks with their key fob, pushing the button like lab rats seeking a responsive beep or honk — assuming the car hasn’t been moved to another neighborhood altogether.

In addition, private tow companies, acting under the city’s authority, have been known to relocate legally parked cars and call it a day without reporting the tow to anyone.

The Inquirer recently spoke to more than a dozen people with disappearing-car stories. Reddit and other online message boards are full of Philly drivers seeking courtesy-tow advice or venting about their experience. Quantifying the problem is difficult when the tows are not documented.

Through a Right-to-Know request, The Inquirer obtained four years of relocation logs from the Police Department and two years of logs from the Philadelphia Parking Authority. The police records show more than 2,000 relocations in the last two years. The parking authority’s handwritten log is sparse, and many of the tows documented there do not appear in the police logs.

“What a nightmare,” said Chris Mauro, a lawyer in Center City who recently had his Acura courtesy towed about a mile away, apparently to make way for construction.

A police officer — again, pleasant, but lacking any useful information — drove Mauro around, with no success. The day before, the officer told him, she had spent hours doing the same thing for another driver who was towed.

“I’m like, ‘Are we just driving around anywhere, aimlessly looking for this?’ ” Mauro asked the officer. “And she’s like, ‘Yeah, it’s crazy.’ She said I should be writing a letter to City Hall because it’s a really bad system.”

Mauro also had to file a stolen-vehicle report. Then, he took matters into his own hands.

The next day, he went to the construction site near where his car had been towed and began investigating, eventually locating a man who recalled seeing a “guy with a ponytail” towing cars there. Through another person at the site, Mauro was able to connect the ponytailed driver to a specific towing company, which then provided him with the location of his car, around Christian Street.

“I would have never found it,” Mauro said.

Some of the people interviewed for this story were even slapped with parking tickets — courtesy of the PPA, of course — because the vehicle they had parked legally was dropped off at an illegal parking spot or exceeded the time limit there.

“It was literally parked in the turning lane,” said Rachel Sclarsky, a veterinarian who found her Hyundai sitting in the middle of Washington Avenue in September after it was towed from her legal parking spot on 15th Street to the other side of her Graduate Hospital neighborhood. “Walking up to it, I was like, ‘This is a joke.' ”

As an added bonus, four tickets totaling more than $100 were left on the windshield. She is contesting them with the PPA.

“Every time I’ve gone on a trip since then I wonder if my car will still be there when I get back,” Sclarsky said.

Some have failed in their attempts to appeal parking tickets that resulted from a courtesy tow.

In the summer of 2018, Abigail Dahan, a local pastry chef, had parked her car in her normal place, near 16th and Locust Streets, in a residential parking spot for Zone 1 residents. When she went to get her car a few days later, it was missing.

“Obviously it freaked me out because I couldn’t find it,” Dahan said.

When she called police, an officer told her there was a record of her car being relocated. But the operator couldn’t read the handwriting on the log. She decided to call back the next morning, which is when the police operator gave her an address on Lombard Street, east of Broad Street. It was outside of Zone 1, where she has a permit to park.

“I ended up getting ticketed and when I tried to fight the ticket — ‘I didn’t put my car there. I’m definitely Zone 1. It got moved because of roadwork’ — they wanted nothing to do with it,” Dahan said. “They said, ‘Nope you still have to pay,’ which was infuriating, obviously.”

Courtesy tows begin at the city Streets Department, where anyone can apply for a parking restriction permit. Once the permit is approved — such as for a movie shoot, festival, utility work, or a person moving who needs to block off space for a truck — temporary no-parking signs are supposed to be posted 24 to 48 hours in advance of the event.

The relocation destinations vary widely. Some vehicles are moved a few blocks, others more than a mile away, police records show. The Inquirer’s analysis of police data identified a trash-strewn block of Ellsworth Street near 24th as a favorite dumping ground for towed vehicles — more than 110 tows to that area since 2016.

PPA spokesperson Marty O’Rourke said the parking authority relocates vehicles within a four-block radius. But Inspector Sekou Kinebrew, a police spokesperson, said the Police Department does not have a set radius.

“We’re not looking to go farther than necessary,” he said. “Every neighborhood has its own demographics, population density, vehicle density, so a lot of times that determines how far it goes.”

Regardless, Kinebrew said, by the end of an event that triggers vehicle relocations, there “should be” a record of the tow in the system.

There are better ways to do this. In Chicago, for instance, city tow drivers use handheld devices to input information into a service-request system. It is posted online in real time and searchable by license plate or other information.

“Having a central system where we can track all of this helps make things a lot easier,” said Marjani Williams, spokesperson for Chicago’s Streets and Sanitation Department.

Kinebrew said the Police Department would be willing to evaluate Philadelphia’s procedures.

“We don’t want anyone inconvenienced,” Kinebrew said. “We don’t want anyone having that momentary time of panic believing that their car was stolen.”

Of ticketed vehicles, Kinebrew said: “That shouldn’t happen. But if someone says it did, I’m not going to argue with them. That could’ve happened.”

Dahan, the pastry chef, had her red Honda Civic relocated a second time the summer of 2018. She arrived at the spot where she had last parked and found it empty.

“I’m like, ‘OK, I’m familiar with this, I know this thing, I know this routine,’ ” she said. She immediately called police. “They say: ‘No, we don’t have any record of towing your car. You should call the towing companies.’ ”

The companies she called had no record of her car. Two days later, she filed a stolen-vehicle report and called her insurance to file a claim.

Nearly two months went by and she finally received a call from the insurance company saying they had accepted her claim. Moments later, police called.

“They were like, ‘Hey, are you still looking for your car?’ And I was like, ‘Yes, I am still looking for my car,’ and they said, ‘Well, we found it.’ ”

The car was neatly parked on a residential street near 21st and Lombard Streets. It was Zone 1, so she didn’t have any parking tickets. There was some damage to the driver’s side door.

Dahan has since decided to pay for a $280 monthly garage pass.

“I would rather do that than deal with the stress of this weird thing they do — that they move cars without telling people,” she said.