By Rich Calder
The New York Police Department has begun ordering hundreds of civilian staffers to tow vehicles from crime scenes and accidents without first providing proper training and safety equipment.
Officials at the union representing the workers said that the directive is meant to drive down overtime hours in the wake of funding cuts for the department in New York City's latest budget, but jeopardizes criminal investigations and puts members at risk.
The NYPD's 270 tow-truck operators typically spend shifts impounding vehicles owned by parking scofflaws. Two weeks ago, however, they were ordered to take on the higher-stakes duties during weekend and overnight shifts, drivers and officials for District Council 37 Local 983 said.
Towing cars from possible crime scenes was previously executed almost exclusively by 40 other NYPD civilian workers represented by the same union but classified as "motor vehicle operators."
Unlike tow operators, these workers receive training in moving vehicles from crime scenes without smudging fingerprints or tainting other evidence, union officials said. Motor-vehicle operators are also equipped with safety glasses, disposable plastic body suits and other protective devices to avoid potentially contaminating blood and other substances.
"The public doesn't want anyone walking away free after committing murder because our members didn't know what they were doing and accidentally wiped away evidence while grabbing a steering wheel to tow a car," said Marvin Robbins, Local 983's vice president.
NYPD spokeswoman Sgt. Jessica McRorie said the NYPD has been working to reduce costs and overtime following recent budget cuts. She declined to say whether the new orders have affected any criminal investigations but said in an emailed statement that the department was reviewing the union's concerns.
"Criminal investigations and the processing of crime scenes is a priority of the NYPD," Sgt. McRorie said. "The NYPD will ensure that evidence is processed properly and in accordance with NYPD policy."
The cost-savings measures came weeks after Mayor Bill de Blasio and the New York City Council approved a $88.19 billion city budget that shifted nearly $1 billion in funding from the NYPD to social and youth services. The budget also reduced overtime for NYPD personnel and canceled a class of cadets.
Mr. de Blasio, a Democrat, and the council agreed to the cuts after weeks of large-scale protests over the May 25 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody and calls for defunding police departments. As a result, the NYPD's annual operating budget dropped to around $5 billion from $6 billion.
"I really think if people look at these facts, they are going to recognize this as a huge reinvestment in communities, while we still stay safe as a city," the mayor said at a July 1 press conference. "I'm very comfortable we struck the right balance."
The NYPD first pulled motor-vehicle operators off weekends and overnight shifts on July 24 to help trim overtime costs, but without reassigning the work, according to a review of department memos. Motor-vehicle operators last year racked up nearly $2.3 million in payroll expenses, including about $500,000 in overtime, city records show.
The July 24 directive left some vehicles involved in possible crimes parked and unguarded on the street for days at a time, rather than moved to a secure local precinct, the union said.
The NYPD on Aug. 7 began ordering tow operators to take on weekend and overnight duties so vehicles involved in investigations wouldn't remain on streets.
Union officials said tow operators can legally reject the new assignment under its labor contract, but the NYPD said it believes it hasn't violated the pact.
Mr. Robbins said Local 983 plans to take legal action to void the new orders.
Maria Haberfeld, a professor of police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the new directive could be a "significant blow" to how the NYPD secures future crime scenes involving vehicles and collects evidence.
She said lawmakers involved in the city budget didn't take into account potential ramifications.
"I'm not surprised there's an issue, and I think we are going to see even more issues like this in the future" she said. "If evidence is contaminated and not admissible in court, people who committed crimes will walk free."
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
August 23, 2020 10:14 ET (14:14 GMT)Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.