BUCKHANNON — The owner of a local towing company accused the Upshur County Sheriff’s Department of failing to follow established protocol for dispatching wrecker services to the scene of motor vehicle accidents Thursday.
Eric Robinson, owner of Eric’s Towing and Recovery, appeared before the commission at its most recent meeting to discuss what transpired in the aftermath of a single-vehicle wreck that happened on June 24.
The commission last updated its policy on dispatching wrecker services on Sept. 29, 2016. According to the policy, the Upshur County E-911 Communications Center maintains a rotation list of wrecker services, which includes A&S Recovery, Black Diamond Tow, Buckhannon Towing, Central Towing, Eric’s Towing and Recovery, Precision Auto and Tennerton Auto, per a list provided by county administrator Carrie Wallace. The policy states that in the event an owner or operator of a vehicle does not request a specific towing service, the Comm Center is to contact the next towing service on the list to respond. If the towing service accepts the call, it must depart its location “in no more than five (5) minutes.”
Robinson told the commission that he accepted a call from the Comm Center on the morning of Saturday, June 24, to respond to an accident involving a vehicle that had rolled over an embankment in the St. Clair turn on Route 20, just past the state police barracks. Robinson said he gave the Comm Center a 30-minute estimated time of arrival and was en route at 7:27 a.m.
In fact, he made it to the scene in about half that time, but when he was one minute away, at 7:43 a.m., he said he was advised by the Comm Center that the officer on duty — Cpl. Theron Caynor — said his initial 30-minute ETA was unacceptable and had instructed them to page out another wrecker service.
“When I was asked to stand down my arrival at 7:43 a.m., I was told they had contacted another towing company,” Robinson said.
Since he was so close, Robinson decided to wait and see how long it would take the newly dispatched tow service to get on scene.
“When I was informed that there was somebody going to beat me, I knew I had better go and see it for myself,” Robinson said. But when he arrived at 7:44 a.m., Robinson said Caynor asked him to “go ahead and hook the vehicle.”
“I said, ‘absolutely not,’” Robinson told the commission. “I was merely following his order and waiting for the next guy to get there.”
Then, as Robinson was conversing with Caynor, a firefighter approached the two and told Robinson that he “was speaking out of line because that officer had a badge on his shirt, and I was to do whatever he told me.”
“Every officer has two duties,” Robinson said of the interaction, “and that is service and to protect us — and each and every one of you work for all of us, so for a fireman to come and say that and for the officer to agree with it is more unacceptable than a 30-minute ETA. From the time I showed up on scene at 7:44 a.m. to 8:01 or 8:02 when the other towing company showed up was roughly 15 to 20 minutes. I could have cleared the scene before the other towing company even arrived.”
He also said he believed that in September 2016, when the commission revised the wrecker dispatch policy, any estimated arrival time of 45 minutes or below was deemed acceptable.
“That did not get put in the rules, which may or may not be an issue,” Robinson said. Following the meeting, Wallace said the 45-minute time window had been a recommendation from towing companies but was not adopted as part of the policy.
“What can we do to fix this issue?” Robinson asked. “We’re all in this together.”
The commission asked Sheriff David Coffman to respond to Robinson’s comments.
Coffman said Caynor had made a “public safety discretional decision” that 30 minutes was an unacceptable ETA.
“For the safety of the public, this is why he (Caynor) chose to go back to the Comm Center and request another wrecker service,” Coffman said, adding that he supported Caynor’s decision. The sheriff said he had been advised by Caynor that Robinson was upset and he had consequently expected to receive a call at his home or office, but Robinson did not contact him and instead opted to speak at the commission’s public meeting.
Coffman said Robinson had “backdoored” him by choosing to speak with the commission directly instead of first approaching him.
“I have other concerns here, too,” Coffman said. “It was very obvious when Eric left the scene, he wanted to vent to somebody, so he turns to his social media, and some of the statements he made through social media upset me — one, in particular. You have alleged that my officers were ‘on the take,’” meaning sheriff’s deputies were receiving money in exchange for requesting that the Comm Center dispatch certain wrecker services.
“Whenever you accuse me office or my officers, you open up a can of civil liability, and you better be able to back up what you said,” Coffman said to Robinson.
Robinson described the incident in a June 24 11:13 a.m. post in the Facebook group “What Buckhannon Needs…” The comments Coffman was referring to appear to have since been deleted.
At Thursday’s commission meeting, Robinson elaborated on the accusations Coffman had referred to.
“When I was sitting in the rollback, the officer (Caynor) walked to the back side of the vehicle and the tow truck driver walked to the back side of the vehicle and something exchanged hands, and it did not appear to be the way this thing should have been handled,” Robinson said. “I’m not trying to make accusations.”
Coffman replied, “But you did. You did it in writing. I can guarantee you that you’re wrong, I could not, would not, tolerate that. My officers are getting no share of anyone’s (money) other than their own paycheck. I wish you would have contacted me Monday.”
Robinson said that the last time the commission met to update the wrecker dispatch policy, no one from the sheriff’s department was present at the meeting and that had “rubbed him the wrong way.”
Commissioner Troy “Buddy” Brady said he could understand both points of view; however, he told Robinson that he should have proceeded to tow the vehicle when he arrived at the scene.
“I can see mistakes on everybody’s part,” Brady said, “but once you got on scene and the officer said ‘go ahead and hook it,’ you should have went ahead and hooked to that vehicle.”
Commissioner Sam Nolte also advised Robinson that he would have benefitted from the business, should he have obeyed and towed the vehicle away.
“Being fired up, that’s not going to make it any better and it just puts the officer on the defense,” Nolte said. “I completely see your point, I understand why you’re upset, but I think you just should have taken care of it; it got skewed because you got so fired up. There’s a certain level of professionalism you need to keep.”
Robinson said he was angered by the firefighter’s comments that Caynor “could do whatever he wanted because of his badge.”
“I just want to know what we can do to make everything work better,” Robinson said.
Nolte observed that the June 24 series of events seemed to be an isolated incident, but Robinson said he’s stopped listening to the scanner because one particular towing company seems to be assigned the majority of calls.
“I think that maybe, just maybe, there may be some officers that’s using their authority for an owner’s request to get that company out there,” Robinson said. “I could be wrong, but I could be right.”
Robinson said even out-of-state drivers supposedly request that particular towing company, questioning how someone who doesn’t live in Upshur County would know about that company.
Comm Center Director Doyle Cutright responded to that allegation.
“When Eric showed up on the scene, he was less than professional, and the officer on scene tried to make it as right as possible by having him put back on top of the list (even though he had refused to tow the vehicle),” Cutright said. “I think that shows a certain level of professionalism. And just because you’re out-of-state doesn’t mean you don’t know a local tow company. I don’t think that shows any form of malice or favoritism. I just don’t think we’re ever going to appease all the tow truck drivers. I can assure you that if my telecommunicators (dispatch certain towing companies), it’s because they are given a lawful order by officers.”
Commission president Terry Cutright advised Robinson that perhaps he and Coffman needed to have a one-on-one meeting.
“Maybe you can sit down with the sheriff and iron out some of your differences,” Cutright told Robinson.