City Hall

Cockrell Hill's Police Chief Resigns After Investigation Finds He Improperly Sold Impounded Cars

As a general rule, it's probably best to avoid driving through Cockrell Hill. Police in the tiny hamlet, a .6-square-mile splotch in the middle of Oak Cliff, wrote 7,890 traffic tickets last year, nearly two for each of its residents.

That's doubly true if you lack proof of insurance. Each month, the city impounds 200 to 300 cars, according to an investigation conducted by Mayor Luis Cerrera and reported last night by CBS 11's Jason Allen.

That's an insane number for a town of Cockrell Hill's size, but it wasn't his department's penchant for towing cars that prompted Police Chief Michael Sellers to resign yesterday. It was because he was bypassing the legally required public auction and selling some of the seized vehicles from the department's front window.

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Assistant City Manager Brett Haney says the cars that were sold had been legally abandoned, the city having received no response to certified letters sent to the title and lien holders of the vehicles. He describes the front-window sales as "an isolated incident" and says there is no indication that Sellers or anyone else pocketed any of the proceeds, which were "on par with what we get generally" for other vehicles sold at auction.

"There were six vehicles, two mopeds and four cars [according to Cerrera's investigation], and the city has responded by turning it over to the DA. As far as we're concerned, we did our due diligence."

Whether or not prosecutors decide that Sellers did anything criminal, the episode raises some serious questions about law enforcement in Cockrell Hill.

Activist Carlos Quintanilla says the department intentionally targets Hispanic immigrants, who often lack a driver's license and thus have their car title in another person's name. The city's previous rule, which the City Council changed last night, said that only the title holder could claim an impounded car.

There's also the sheer number. Once again, for a town of 4,200, impounding 2,400 to 3,600 cars is insane. Even if, as Haney says, that estimate is too high, "a misnomer" on the part of the mayor ("I would conservatively estimate 150.") Cockrell Hill is impounding a helluva lot of cars.

Haney says that's is a byproduct of the city's efforts to maintain public safety. Impounding cars "is not a policy goal at all. It's an attempt on the police department to remove uninsured drivers. Me and you are both at risk if we ever get in an accident with an uninsured motorist. The idea is to get them off the road."

Public safety was also the justification for Cockrell PD's policy of letting command staff take legally abandoned cars home with them. (They couldn't take the squad cars because the department needs all four of them for patrol.) That way the chief and his deputies would "be able to respond to emergency situations," Haney said. The City Council changed that policy last night as well.

This is the second time in six years that Cockrell Hill's police chief has resigned following a mayoral investigation. Sellers got his job in 2008 after Catherine Smit quit amid allegations that she gave special treatment to an officer suspected of lying on his job application.

(Correction: The original version of the post incorrectly says Smit was accused of lying on her job application; the questions surrounding her resignation concerned the hiring of another officer, Troy Wayne Willmon.)

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Eric Nicholson
Contact: Eric Nicholson