Bell memo suggests that city police turned ticketing, impounding cars into a game
A memo discovered in Bell police files appears to outline a game in which police officers compete to issue tickets, impound cars and arrest motorists.
Titled the “Bell Police Department Baseball Game,” the memo assigns “singles,” “doubles,” “triples” and “home runs” to progressively more serious infractions, starting with parking tickets and moving on to vehicle impounds and felony arrests of drivers. “Non-performers,” the memo says, are “sent for minor league rehab stint.”
The discovery of the memo comes as the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating whether Bell police violated the civil rights of residents through aggressive towing of cars and code enforcement. Part of the investigation focuses on claims by some officers that the department had quotas for issuing tickets and impounding cars, which they said was done to raise revenue for the city. Some officers said they were reprimanded when they did not meet goals.
It’s the first document suggesting a concerted effort to have officers pull over more cars, though it’s unclear who wrote the memo and whether department brass condoned it.
At least two Bell police officials said they were familiar with the memo, which they said circulated a few years ago. Bell Police Capt. Anthony Miranda said he thought a few patrolmen wrote it “to challenge themselves” and when department leaders found out about it, they “squashed it.”
“I think guys created it on their own and when the administration heard about it, they put a stop to it,” added Lt. Ty Henshaw. Department leaders said “It’s cool and fun and we appreciate the motivation, but it’s not going to look good.”
The Times obtained a copy of the one-page memo. The L.A. County district attorney’s office said it received the document last week and launched an investigation. Prosecutors have already charged eight current and former Bell officials with public corruption, including former City Administrator Robert Rizzo, who earned more than $800,000 a year.
After the Bell salary scandal broke last summer, residents complained that police improperly towed cars and fined drivers and charged them exorbitant impound fees in an effort to boost city revenue. One of the most persistent complaints was that police aggressively targeted illegal immigrants, who can’t get licenses in California. Immigrants make up about 50% of Bell’s population.
Bell’s budget shows that over the years the city was generating increased revenue from fees and taxes. City records show that Bell made nearly $1 million in impound fees in fiscal year 2008-09 alone. Bell charged $300 for unlicensed motorists to retrieve their cars, triple what Los Angeles County and neighboring cities charge.
Bell police officers said in interviews in August that they often spent their shifts pulling over drivers for small infractions in the hope that they would turn out to be unlicensed. Although officers didn't look exclusively for immigrants, it was clear that the majority of the drivers pulled over turned out to be illegal immigrants, Officer Kurt Owens said in an interview in August.
“We'd look for younger guys in their 20s and 30s, guys with junkier cars, broken lights, loud music or tinted windows,” he said.
On Monday, Owens said he never saw the memo. “It sounds like a joke; there’s a lot of jokes going around there,” he said.
-- Ruben Vives and Jeff Gottlieb
Photo: Residents outside Bell City Hall last year before a City Council meeting. Credit: L.A. Times