Belleville

Belleville suspends tow company; spokesman denies racism allegation

The Belleville Police and Fire Committee suspended Poelker’s Towing Co. from the police department’s on-call list after a customer told police the tow company’s employees were “very racist,” and a police officer reported he was treated disrespectfully by the owner, Floyd Poelker, according to city records.

“Absolutely ridiculous” is how Poelker’s Garage Inc. spokesman Greg Poelker described the allegation against the tow company’s employees. There is “no substance to that at all.” Greg Poelker is Floyd Poelker’s son and said he was speaking on behalf of his 84-year-old father.

Reached by phone, Floyd Poelker declined to comment.

A customer “told me that he felt that the employees at Poelker’s were very racist. He also felt they were rude, and told me that they cursed at him several times during his dealing with them,” Detective Brenda Donat wrote in an email to a police sergeant on Feb. 23.

Donat’s statement did not give any details about why the customer, who is black, thought the Poelker’s employees were racist, and no employees were identified by name.

The statement and other documents related to the Police and Fire Committee’s actions were obtained by the Belleville News-Democrat through a Freedom of Information Act request. The customer’s name was redacted from the records.

The customer told Donat that Poelker’s quoted one price for storage fees over the telephone but the customer’s wife was quoted a different price when she arrived at the tow yard. He also said Poelker’s tried to convince him to sell his vehicle to them, but he was not interested in doing so.

Greg Poelker, who works for the company part time, said customers often are upset when they arrive at the tow yard at 2201 South Belt West because they’re usually mad that a law-enforcement agency had ordered that their car be towed.

In another incident, Officer Tim Lay filed a complaint against Floyd Poelker after trying to talk to Poelker about a customer who wanted to retrieve some belongings from an impounded vehicle and also was seeking clarification on the fees being charged, according to public documents.

Greg Poelker said in an interview he was not present when his father and Lay met on March 2 but without going into detail said he apologizes for what happened and that he respects Lay.

In a memo to Capt. John Moody, Lay described what he said occurred at Poelker’s office: “Floyd Poelker immediately looked at me and stated in a very angry voice, ‘What do you want?’ I replied that I needed to speak with him about a customer wanting to retrieve property from his vehicle. Poelker replied that he didn’t have time for me and that he was busy. … Poelker stated that he was going to be busy for quite a while, basically portraying that he had no intention of working with us.

“All in all I believe I acted in a professional manner, never raising my voice or going on a so-called ‘power trip.’ In my 13 years of employment at this (department), I have never been treated in such a disrespectful manner by a business owner, especially in front of other citizens,” Lay said in his memo.

After hearing Police Chief Bill Clay give a summary of these incidents and make a recommendation that Poelker’s be suspended, the Police and Fire Committee voted unanimously on April 13 to suspend Poelker’s two more weeks on top of the one-week suspension it was already serving.

Ward 2 Alderwoman Janet Schmidt, a member of the Police and Fire Committee, told the panel, “I just want our officers to know that we have their back and we take this seriously, and the citizens, and that we’re not going to tolerate racism, period. And that message gets sent no matter how you have to do it.”

As far as what police officers reported, Clay said, “I’m not talking about supposition. I’m talking about when officers come in and they make reports and make complaints, that is something then I think we need to take a more harsh approach on.”

“I just want to make sure that we swat a hand before it becomes a bigger problem,” Clay said.

Mayor Mark Eckert and Clay met with Greg Poelker before the committee meeting to discuss the complaints and how the company needs to improve to remain on the city’s on-call list. In one change already agreed upon, Floyd Poelker will no longer be the company’s lead contact to the public.

“Their history of adequate to good service has been much greater than what we’ve seen in a few of these incidents, but we need to make it very clear that poor service and inappropriate service is not going to be tolerated,” Eckert said. “We certainly believe that they deserve another chance. They’ve been in Belleville for 99 years. We’ve had far more good days than we’ve had bad.”

Poelker’s Garage has been on the on-call list for at least 50 years.

Poelker’s previously was suspended from the city’s on-call list nearly 10 years ago. The company was suspended from Nov. 18, 2005, to Nov. 28, 2005. This suspension occurred under former Police Chief Terry Delaney after an officer sent Delaney a report describing Poelker’s response time to a crash scene as “substandard and unacceptable.”

Poelker’s and two other companies, Johnston’s Towing and Paule Towing, are the other companies on the list that police officers use when they investigate a crash or need to have vehicles towed. The three companies serve on a rotating basis for a seven-day period.

Motorists who are in a crash do not have to use the on-call towing company. The companies all charge the same rates, which are established by the city.

Contact reporter Mike Koziatek at mkoziatek@bnd.com or 618-239-2502. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeKoziatekBND.

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