Saturday, February 26, 2011

Lawmakers Plan to Turn School Buses Into Camera Vans

Several pieces of legislation are being considered in Annapolis which will authorize a new type of camera to issue tickets for school bus passing violations which bear the lowest burden of proof for any violation under Maryland law while carrying far larger penalties than any existing photo enforcement violation.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Lawmakers Want to Remove Police Oversight, Exempt Cops from Tickets

The 2011 Maryland General Assembly is considering Legislation pertaining to speed cameras.  One bill being considered would remove the requirement that sworn police officers review speed camera citations, while another would exempt police from receiving tickets.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Hyattsville Considers Adding Cameras

Hyattsville is considering becoming the next town in Prince George's County to add its own speed camera program. A speed camera presentation was made by Police Chief Holland at the town's Feb 7th meeting.  The plan would include creating new school zones solely for deployment of speed cameras, just as many other cities and towns have done, which according to the Gazette article would cover "a vast majority of Hyattsville".  The City Council would need to first pass an ordinance, then designate the school zones, and then sign a contract with a speed camera vendor such as Optotraffic or ACS.

Residents who wish to express their views on the matter can find the contact info for the Hyattsville council and the council meeting schedule HERE.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Maryland SafeZones Cameras Not Independently Certified

Documents obtained by StopBigBrotherMD.Org show that the VITRONIC Poliscan speed cameras used by the state-run Maryland SafeZones program may have run afoul of a requirement under state law because they have not been independently certified for accuracy.
State law governing speed cameras in freeway “work zones” (21-810) requires the following
"(6)    (i)   A work zone speed control system shall undergo an annual calibration check performed by an independent calibration laboratory.
(ii)   The independent calibration laboratory shall issue a signed certificate of calibration after the annual calibration check that:
1.   Shall be kept on file; and
2.   Shall be admitted as evidence in any court proceeding for a violation of this section.
"
The same requirement exists for locally run speed monitoring systems(21-809).  However the annual calibration certificates for the SHA’s speed cameras were in fact issued by the manufacturer, VITRONIC, not by an independent lab. 

The Poliscan devices, and their annual calibration certificates, were provided by the state’s vendor, ACS State and Local Solutions.  The SafeZones program is run jointly by the State Highway Administration and the Maryland State Police.  The original RFP for the state’s speed camera program stated “Contractor must provide speed data collection equipment that conforms to the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) for speed measurement, with a maintenance record to assure equipment is calibrated and properly functioning”.  However in fact the Poliscan is not on the IACP’s  list of conforming devices.  ACS conceded in their technical proposal that the devices were not IACP certified, but that they would seek to obtain IACP approval for them.  As of this date this has not yet occurred.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Baltimore City Cameras Ticket 'Invisible' Vehicle

Baltimore City claims that police review each citation before it is mailed.  However this review apparently does not extend to ensuring that the car can actually be identified.  One Maryland driver received recently received a citation for a car which did not belong to him, for which the photos taken were so dark the vehicle could barely be seen. 

The driver had been surprised to receive a Baltimore City speed camera citation in the mail dated 12/27/2010.  The reason for his surprise was that "the last time I was in Baltimore at all was a few years ago" -- at which time Baltimore did not even have speed camera tickets yet.  After looking up the address on the citation, he realized it was in a location he had never been in his life.  He was further surprised by the fact that the citation included no photos, since it is a requirement under state law that speed camera tickets show two time stamped images of the cited vehicle.  Presumably the 'citation' was apparently actually a 'second notice' but he had never received a prior citation ( StopBigBrotherMD.org has heard from other drivers where the first notice they received from Baltimore did not have images).

After contacting the phone # on the ticket (which is run by the camera contractor, ACS), he was able to download the violation images from the website.  And then the next surprise: you cannot even see the car itself in the image.  The nighttime photo was so dark only the tail lights, hub caps, and license plate were visible.  The license plate number appear to match his own, except that one letter (a W on his plate) is blurred beyond recognition and is actually an 'N' or an 'M'.

While the cited car itself can barely be seen, by brightening the image and zooming in it is possible to still compare the visible portions.  Notice that the cited vehicle has round tail light, whereas the photo of the recipient’s car (top)has triangular tail lights.  The cited vehicle appears to be a 4 door sedan whereas the recipient's car is a 2 door coupe.  You can also see the registration sticker on the upper left corner of the cited vehicle's plate is red; the ticket recipient's sticker is green. 
Top = recipient's vehicle; Bottom = Citation Image
Another thing to note about the ticket was the timestamps; they were accurate to only one second.  The timestamps jump from 18:57:31:00 to 18:57:32:00.
Yet this could not possibly be correct, since in a full second the vehicle would have traveled several car-lengths at the cited speed of 49mph.  We recently did a story on how drivers in Forest Heights were able to use image timestamps to demonstrate that speed measurements in error.  Well with only 1s of precision, when the real interval is likely in the range of 0.2-0.3s but could in theory be anywhere from 0.01-0.99s, proving oneself innocent by a time-distance calculation would be impossible!  It appears some camera contractors "learn from their mistakes" and are now rounding off the image timestamps to the point where such verification is impossible.

Having collected this information to challenge the ticket, he then proceeded to contact the city, who told him they would 'put in a dispute' and that he needn't even worry about requesting a hearing.  No problem?  But then, just to be on the safe side, two days later he called them back to check.  The person answering his call said they had nothing in their system about any dispute and didn't even have a record he had called previously.  It appears the mantra for dealing with Baltimore City is "Trust but Verify".

Baltimore's review of photo citations has come up as an issue before.  Two days ago it was reported that the signature of a deceased Baltimore City Police Officer appeared on approximately 2000 red light camera citations after he passed away.  In early 2010, Baltimore City issued 932 tickets in error after a camera was configured to the wrong speed limit.

StopBigBrotherMD.org has received other reports of similar citations issued to the incorrect vehicle.  One business owner reported to us that she had received multiple speed and red light camera citations for a vehicle which had a plate number differing from one of her vehicles by one digit.  Another driver wrote to us that they were assured by the city that their ticket would be taken care of without a hearing.  She contacted the city department of collections and eventually received a response from Jacqueline McCullough, (Parking Fines Section, Bureau of Revenue Collections) dated Monday 10/18/2010 stating "A review of the systems indicated citation 82761347 was issued in error."  Apparently it is up to members of the public to review camera citations for Baltimore City.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Forest Heights Speed Camera Investigation Part II: The Cover Up

In Part I of our Investigation into Forest Heights speed cameras we disclosed a large number of citation photos which appear to show inaccurate speed readings by the town's cameras, deployed by Optotraffic on Indian Head Highway. In Part II of our investigation, we discuss how Forest Heights officials denied public information act requests, thereby preventing information about the nature and extent of errors from becoming public.

Deceased Baltimore Cop Signs 2000 Red Light Camera Tickets

WBAL-TV11 has reported that 2000 Baltimore City Red Light camera tickets were signed by a police officer who had died months earlier.  The police officer in question had died on September 27th in a tragic accident.  Then a driver who received a citation for allegedly running a red light on January 12, 2011, an acquaintence who was a retired police officer recognized the approving officer's name.  It was later determined that around 2000 citations had been issed with the deceased officer's signature.

Baltimore City Police allegedly review and sign every single red light camera citation before they are issued.  The city police department stated to WBAL that they "do not blanket approve citations".   According to the story, legal experts expressed an opinion that the citations bearing the deceased officer's singature "may be difficult to enforce".  Baltimore City issued 9,300 of the $75 red light camera tickets in January 2011 alone.

The is not the first time Baltimore City's photo enforcement programs have committed errors on a mass scale.  The city recently accidentally flagged 8000 vehicle registrations of people who had received red light camera tickets while they were awaiting hearings.  And in March 2010 it was reported that a single Baltimore City speed camera had issued 932 erroneous tickets after being configured to enforce the wrong speed limit.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Speed Camera Contractor Linked To Baltimore County "Astroturf" Group

One Big Happy Family
A lobbying firm hired by Baltimore County's speed camera contractor has been linked to the creation of a website supporting the expansion of speed cameras in Baltimore County according to an article in Patch.com.  Web page and Facebook group 'Slow Down for Baltimore County Schools' was created in January supporting the proposed Baltimore County legislation which would expand the county's current program of 15 camera sites to an unlimited number of sites.  The site was supposedly created by Sarah Dennis, a Baltimore County school teacher.  However it was revealed that the firm Kearney O'Doherty (KO) Public Affairs, the politically connected strategy firm hired by ACS State and Local Solutions, helped the group create their webpage 'slowdownbaltimorecounty.com' and drive 'likes' to their Facebook group.

According to the article "Damian O’Doherty, a KO Public Affairs partner and former county government official, told Patch in December that his political strategy firm has been working with ACS and a coalition of “educators, parents and elected officials to bring (speed cameras) to Maryland."  When asked the firm did not respond to requests for details about its efforts to support the Baltimore County group.

Dennis told Patch that her neighbor, Howard Libit, set up the slowdownbaltimorecounty.com website.  Libit is chief operating officer of Kearney O'Doherty Public Affairs.  The web page contains a button which allows users to send emails to Baltimore County Council Members.  O'Doherty is listed as one of the 'like's on the Facebook group, but there is no other disclosure of the firm's involvement in the creation of the web page.

In addition, many area residents have been receiving emails directing them to the web page.  Kevin Dunne, a resident of WestTowson, told Patch that he received a Jan 21 email message seeking support for speed cameras and encourages them to use the web page's email link.  Dunne said he never requested to be on the email list.  Another area resident, who also opposes speed cameras, had emailed stopbigbrothermd.org on Jan 29 to make a similar complaint about receiving an email from the group.

The email was addressed from 'slowdownbaltimore@gmail.com'.  Sarah Dennis stated to Patch that she had given Libit access to the group's Facebook account, which is configured to send emails from that address, in order to 'help get the word out'.  Dennis claimed she did not send the email to Dunne and was never given an email distribution list to use, and could not say if Kearney O'Doherty Public Affairs had developed one.

The practice of corporate interests creating artificial "grass roots" organizations to give the impression of public support is not unique and is commonly referred to a "Astroturfing".

ACS is the contractor for Baltimore County's speed camera program.  Under the current arrangement ACS was paid $949,582 of the $1.16million of the fines collected so far.  ACS has a history of aggressive lobbying tactics, including spending hundreds of thousands on lobbyists and campaign contributions prior to the passage of statewide speed cameras, buying steak dinners for state lawmakers, and running a massive PR and media campaign in Montgomery County documented in that county's speed camera contract with ACS.  A poll was released in 2010 which claimed overwhelming public support for speed cameras in Maryland.  That poll was in fact conducted by ACS's marketing firm, Kearney O'Doherty Public Affairs.

The County already voted to renew its existing contract with ACS without a bid.  The Baltimore County Council is preparing to vote to increase the current 15 sites to an unlimited number at their February 7th meeting.  The county recently released a report which showed that there had been no reduction in accidents at their existing speed camera sites, running

You can contact the council members using their contact information on the county web site or click this link to open an email window.

StopBigBrotherMD.Org is not funded by any outside group or corporate interest.  This website was created and is maintained by unpaid volunteer efforts.
=======================================

UPDATE 02/11/2010: On 2/7/2010 the Baltimore County Council voted 5-2 to lift the cap on the number of speed cameras in the county.  The approved legislation will permit an unlimited number of new camera sites, either fixed or mobile, to be deployed without additional public discussion  or legislative approval.    Council Members Todd Huff and David Marks voted against the bill.  Council members Quirk, Almond, Oliver, Becins, and Olszewski all voted in favor of the bill. 

The original bill included language which would have required individual council members to be notified before new speed camera sites were added in their own district and to veto such sites.  However council member Almond introduced an amendment which removed that restriction as well, thus removing the possibility of reopening public debate if a site is selected which some believe is inappropriate.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

College Park Denies Speed Limit Change, Documents Show Otherwise

In December 2010 we reported that the speed limit had recently been lowered at a lucrative College Park speed camera site on the portion of East-bound Metzerott Road, using current photos compared to Google Street View images.  After our inquiry to the city received no response for one month, StopBigBrotherMD.org followed up on that with a formal Maryland Public Information Act request to the city.   On Jan 28th the city responded to our request by turning over documents which appear to show that the exact speed limit change we had stated in our original story had in fact taken place, while at the same time stating that there was no speed limit change.

Friday, February 4, 2011

State, Baltimore County Consider Speed Camera Legislation

Baltimore County is nearing a vote on a plan to expand its speed camera program to an unlimited number of cameras.  A vote is expected at the February 7th council meeting.  This vote comes on the tail of a report by County Police which showed that there had been no reduction in accidents after the installation of speed cameras, and that most of the revenue had in fact gone to the multinational corporation which runs the cameras.  Baltimore County residents can Contact The Council By Email to express their concerns.

The Senate Judicial Proceedings heard testimony this week on Senate Bill 30, which would limit "work zone speed cameras" to areas where workers are present.  Current law allows speed cameras to be used in workzones on interstate highways "regardless of whether workers are present".

A representative of StopBigBrotherMD.org testified at the hearing on SB30 that this practice could encourage work zones to be kept in place longer than necessary, or encourage workzone speed limits lower than is necessary for worker safety in order to make the system profitable for the state or its contractors.  Senator Brochin presented evidence which showed that over 70% of citations issued by the state's work zone speed cameras were issued at times when work was not taking place.  The cameras are currently deployed on several interstate highways, including two locations on I-695 where the speed limit is reduced to 50mph, even when work is not taking place.

The SHA is attempting to stall the movement for SB30 by instead proposing an 'administrative change'.  Such a measure would likely constitute no permanent change at all.  Their proposal would involve the SHA 'reevaluating camera sites' but in fact would not REQUIRE them to change anything or even keep any such changes in place permanently.  The SHA's proposal included to 'implement a marketing program to inform the public about speed camera use in work zones', showing that in fact the SHA;s counter-proposal is really nothing but a PR ploy meant to distract the public.  Maryland would be better off with no change at all than accepting the SHA's counter-proposal.

SB30 must pass the Judicial Proceedings Committee in order for the full senate to consider it.  You can Contact the Judicial Proceedings Committee if you wish to express your support for this legislation.