Tow Jam: When the City Makes a Victim Pay For the Crime

One misty August morning, Matthew Couzens woke up to find his blue 1994 Honda Accord missing from where he parked it along Hampshire Street between 18th and Mariposa streets. It had been gone for about 24 hours when a parking enforcement official came upon it while ticketing for street cleaning four blocks away, on 18th and Vermont streets.

Couzens is a jazz musician who plays under the name Randy Johnson. He was recording in his studio in Alameda when the San Francisco Police Department called him with a nearly impossible task: Come get your car within 20 minutes. Otherwise, they'd have the car towed to an impound center, and make Couzens foot the bill.

SFPD doesn't see a problem with this. “Twenty minutes I think is very generous for us to stand by,” Officer Carlos Manfredi says.

When asked, though, how exactly someone is supposed to get anywhere in the city in 20 minutes, the cops had no suggestions. “They need to figure that out,” Manfredi says.

In response to the towing threat he received on his voicemail, Couzens called a local dispatch office. However, he says, he didn't feel much better after the “detached, cold, and irritated” phone call.

The police and taxpayers may not want to allocate time and money, respectively, for cops to babysit a car for more than 20 minutes and blow off more urgent calls, Manfredi explains. Still, Couzens feels doubly victimized: first by the thieves, then by the police.

He does try to see the humor in it, saying he likes to think that his car was borrowed because either “someone had a life-threatening emergency … [or] someone just watched Harold and Maude … [or] perhaps someone just walked up to the wrong car after a late night out and drove it home,” he said. “I hope someone proves this…. I can go have a drink and laugh with them about it.”

While Couzens ultimately saved his car from being towed (his sister picked it up), he now feels “that the SFPD lacks altruism,” he says. “It says 'to protect and serve' on most police cars and buildings. I guess they left out the part about making victims of crime feel re-victimized by their behavior and/or attitude. I guess that is too long to put on a bumper.”

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