Tuesday, March 28, 2023

STING center footage sheds light on downtown Wilmington towing incident

Multiple vehicles being towed on South Front Sreet around 6:08 p.m. on the evening of the holiday parade. (Port City Daily photo / Wilmington Police Department)

WILMINGTON — Surveillance footage released under a court order, along with 911 audio and new information from the city, help clear up what led to a mass towing from downtown Wilmington ahead of the city’s holiday parade.

Read more: Dozens towed from downtown Wilmington, owners overcharged, residents and city disagree over what happened

The footage shows that, at least for some of the towing locations, parking meters were marked with signs. However, due to the limited resolution and range of the footage provided by the city, it’s not possible to say based solely on surveillance video whether some meters were left unmarked, as several vehicle owners have claimed in complaints to the city.

Some vehicle owners also provided evidence that they had been towed after signs were removed, but before tow trucks stopped making rounds along the parade route.

In the end, while some questions have been answered, others remain.

Holiday parade towing

On December 8, 2019, at least 24 vehicles were towed from downtown Wilmington. Several of the vehicle owners complained to the city, claiming that they had not seen any ‘no parking’ signs, as well as providing evidence towing companies contracted by the city had overcharged them.

City staff told these owners — along with the media — that footage from the Wilmington Police Department’s STING (Situational Tactics & Intelligence Nexus Group) center would prove that spots were clearly marked. However, when this footage was requested, the city then clarified it was a ‘law enforcement record’ that could only be released by court order. City staff had not viewed this footage.

In January, Port City Daily petitioned New Hanover County Superior Court for the release of the footage. Earlier this month, the court approved the petition and the City of Wilmington turned over footage from a camera at Front and Market streets; the police department later provided footage from three additional angles.

Calling in tow trucks

A City of Wilmington employee calls in vehicles in the no-parking area. (Port City Daily photo / WPD)

One of the issues with the towing was that a city employee called 911 to request wreckers — this is a procedure normally reserved for emergencies like car accidents, not for civil towing enforcement; this apparently resulting in some vehicle owners being overcharged.

According to records provided by New Hanover County, a city employee made the first phone call around 3:26 p.m. from North Front and Walnut street, requesting two vehicles be towed. The same employee made a second call around 3:39 p.m. calling for six more vehicles to be towed from Market Street between Front and Water streets, an area that had been reserved for WECT news crews.

Below: An employee of the City of Wilmington’s Parks Department calls in to have six vehicles towed from Front and Market streets. (Audio provided by New Hanover County; audio redactions made by the county.)

Records from the county’s 911 center also show over a dozen other vehicles were also towed as operators worked through a rotation of companies; most were identified between 3 and 4 p.m., but several vehicles further north on North Front Street were also called in around 5:30 p.m.

What STING footage does and doesn’t show

Towing began around 4:20 p.m. on Market Street. In the bottom right-hand corner and other locations, signage is clearly visible on a meter. (Port City Daily photo / WPD)

According to the city, the following signs were posted:

  • No parking after 12:00 noon – Market St. between Water and Front (WECT media setup area)
  • No parking after 12:00 noon – Front St. between Walnut and Redcross (parade lineup area)
  • No parking after 5:00 pm – Front St. between Walnut and Ann Street (parade route) 

While the resolution of some of the footage is not high-quality, on several shots ‘no parking’ signs can clearly be seen. In particular, footage of Markest Street between Front and Water streets shows vehicles being towed from spaces that were marked with signs. These signs appear to be the green and white 8.5×11-inch sheets, inserted into clear sleeves and affixed to meters with rubber bands, that the city’s Parks Department described as the ones used for the holiday parade.

Footage also shows city staff removing signs from Market Street meters shortly after 6 p.m., after the towing had mostly been completed, and about an hour before the parade began. At least two employees remove signs and throw them away. The same two employees then appear on camera walking south on South Front Street. The employees split up to opposite sides of the street — but several minutes of footage is missing from the south-facing camera, making it impossible to tell if those employees continued removing signs as they went (which would, obviously, mean that those parking meters had been posted). (Note: The missing footage appears to be the result of a glitch, not editing by the police.)

Because of the missing camera footage, and the lack of resolution at the distance to the parking meters, it is difficult to tell concretely if those meters were posted; some of the vehicle owners who complained to the city had parked in these locations.

Below: A lower-quality image facing north around 3:30 p.m. Despite the limited resolution, it does appear signs are posted on the meters closest to Market Street.

Below: A blown-up section of the north-facing camera.

Below: Staff removing signs from parking meters.

Below: Staff heading south on Front Street. The gap in available footage appears as a black space interrupting the red line along the bottom of the image.

Perfectly bad timing?

According to at least one vehicle owner who parked near Grace and North Front streets, only one meter in the area was marked — but with a red ‘no parking’ hood, not green and white paper signs. This owner said he arrived around 5:25 p.m., parked, and had dinner.

A hooded meter near 221 N. Front St. (Port City Daily photo / Contributed)

When the owner returned to his parking spot at around 6:30 p.m. his vehicle was gone. After calling 911 the owner was informed his vehicle had been towed. He then took several photographs with his phone: one showed rubber bands but no sign on a meter, another showed the red parking hood. The metadata for both images shows they were taken around 8:17 p.m. on December 8, 2019.

Photo showing rubber bands, but no signs. (Port City Daily photo / Contributed)

Based on the timeline of towing, and that it appears city staff may have traveled north to south removing signs, it is possible that staff had already removed parking signs when the vehicle owner parked, but that tow trucks were still enforcing the no-parking areas.

Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at ben@localvoicemedia.com, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001

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