Paula Protani was posting signs in a parking lot on a hot day in August 2009 when she spotted a police officer arranging for a crashed car to be hauled away by a Majestic tow truck.
A leader of the city's licensed towers group, Protani said she knew she was witnessing a violation of city law. She said she pointed out her concerns to the officer — and he told her she was under arrest.
"I'm 50-some years old, and I had never been arrested before," Protani, a manager at East Baltimore's Frankford Towing, said Wednesday. "It's not something I ever wanted to experience."
She spent eight hours in Central Booking before being released without being charged.
Anthony Guglielmi, a police spokesman, said the department's Internal Affairs Division has been notified of the incident.
"It's something that they definitely will be looking into, if they aren't already," he said.
Protani said she and a tow truck driver were putting up signs in a client's private lot on Aug. 22, 2009, when they noticed the accident near the intersection of Biddle Street and Harford Road.
She approached the officer and told him that one of the city's 13 licensed "medallion towers" should have been handling the accident, she says. The medallion companies have the sole right to tow cars that are blocking the flow of traffic after a crash.
Protani says the officer became "very belligerent" and ordered her to step away. She walked to a street corner where bystanders had gathered and called the head of the Police Department's towing section, when, she says, the officer walked up and arrested her.
A report prepared by the officer, Gaston Melendez, offers a different account of events. According to the report, Protani "stated that I was not supposed to let others [sic] tow trucks to tow those vehicles because the tow truck was impeding traffic. I told her that was the reason I was directing traffic."
Protani "started to dial her cellphone in the middle of the street" and ignored five requests to leave the area, according to the report.
The report does not name the company that was towing the cars involved in the crash. Melendez was not one of the 17 officers arrested Wednesday and named in the federal complaint.
Guglielmi, the police spokesman, said he did not know whether Melendez was among the 14 officers who had been suspended but not charged. Attempts to reach Melendez for comment were unsuccessful.
Robert F. Cherry, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Protani says another officer apologized as he drove her to Central Booking and said that his colleague had acted wrongly in ordering her arrest.
She says she sat in a crowded cell for an afternoon and part of an evening — "it seemed like a lifetime, even though it was only eight hours" — before she was released. Two days later, the director of the Police Department's record section sent her a letter saying the record of her arrest would be expunged.
Protani said she complained to internal affairs and was interviewed about the incident last summer, a year after it occurred.
"We medallions play by the rules," Protani said. "We stick with the rules and regulations, and we have a very good relationship with the Police Department."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun