Friday, October 28, 2011

Study Cautions on Privatizing Law Enforcement

A new study by a pro-consumer group says the practice of privatizing law enforcement of traffic violations may be putting profits ahead of safety and accuracy. An estimated 60 million Americans live in communities where the are monitored by automated ticketing machines, according to the study by the US Public Research Group (US PIRG), a left-leaning public interest group.

"Pitfalls can arise when contracts encourage vendors to treat automated traffic enforcement systems as a profit center: by maximizing the number of tickets written, regardless of the impact on public safety; by limiting the ability of governments to set traffic safety policies according to community needs; or by constraining the ability of cities to terminate contracts early in the event that automated enforcement systems are rejected by the electorate or fail to meet safety goals," the study explained.

The report points out how most contract arrangements provide incentives to contractors which could compromise the integrity of the system:
"Contracts between private camera vendors and cities can include payment incentives that put profit above traffic safety.", "The most problematic contracts require cities to share revenue with the camera vendor on a per-ticket basis or through other formulas as a percentage of revenue. In other words, the more tickets a camera system issues, the more profit the vendor collects."
In Maryland, state law was supposed to forbid per-ticket contracts, by including the following : ""If a contractor operates a speed monitoring system on behalf of a local jurisdiction, the contractor’s fee may not be contingent on the number of citations issued or paid."  However this provision has been effectively circumvented in nearly every jurisdiction in the state, starting with Montgomery County, and soon followed by similar per-ticket contracts in Baltimore City, Forest Heights, Brentwood, Mount Rainier, College Park, New Carrollton, Riverdale Park, Frederick City, Prince George's County, and many others.  In nearly every case the vendor provides, installs/deploys, and maintains the machines, then processes violations, mails violations, and collects payments.  In some cases vendors have also provided the traffic surveys used to determine where cameras should be placed.   Also, in many cases the vendor also schedules court hearings.  Failure of one vendor to provide timely hearings created situations in Forest Heights where drivers needed to wait OVER A YEAR to receive hearings, by which time the "speed monitoring system operator" who signed the logs, was no longer available to testify about an apparent possible failure to perform the required tests or what appeared to be falsification of evidence --  the testimony of a company representative was accepted instead. 

The study also cautions how "The privatized traffic law enforcement industry has amassed significant political clout that it uses to shape traffic safety nationwide.".  This has manifested itself in Maryland in the form of camera companies lobbying for statewide speed cameras, treating lawmakers to expensive steak dinners, and even one company creating "Astroturf sites" in Baltimore County and Howard County to promote the expansion of speed cameras there. Another concern would be that contracts might be awarded to companies which have made substantial campaign contributions.

Unlike some other studies supporting speed cameras, studies funded by camera companies or other entities which benefit financially from photo enforcement, USPIRG does not have a specific financial interest in photo enforcement one way or the other. 
One issue mentioned in the report which we would add is the loss of accountability and transparency, particularly that placement of responsibility in the hands of a private company also places certain records out of the reach of states' open records laws.
"Unlike a public entity, a private operator is not subject to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests from the public. It may also seek to prevent public scrutiny by declaring certain information to be a “proprietary business secret.” This should not be allowed." has witnessed the effect of this in several cases where local governments have claimed that records pertaining to the operation or technical characteristics of speed cameras were in the hands of the contractor rather than the police.  The vendor would then claim that they cannot release the documents, effectively denying a defendant access to evidence they were seeking for their legal defense.  In some cases even documents which by their nature must have been in the hands of the local government which is claimed to "operate" the devices, rather than a contractor which the police claim do not operate the devices, were effectively denied in this way.

More Information on:
                   U.S.PIRG Website                   
                   USA Today
                   Washington Post