Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Baltimore To Begin Investigation Into Camera Errors

From the Baltimore Sun:
City Councilman James B. Kraft says he’s hired two investigators to help complete a City Council probe of Baltimore’s troubled speed camera system.Two paralegals -– who are paid $32 and $26 per hour, respectively –- from the Robert Half Legal staffing firm began work last week reviewing thousands of documents that the Rawlings-Blake administration turned over to Kraft’s committee.“The mayor has approved the money for two full-time investigators for up to three months,” Kraft said.A City Council committee is investigating the work of former Baltimore speed camera contractors Xerox State & Local Solutions and Brekford Corp., but that probe had stalled as Kraft said he needs to hire staff to go through the voluminous documents turned over to him.
The city’s speed camera system has been shut down for more than a year following The Baltimore Sun's revelations about erroneous tickets. The Sun investigation found errors at many cameras, including tickets issued for slow-moving or stopped cars. When operating, the network of 83 speed cameras and 81 red-light cameras brought more than $140 million to city government through $40 speed camera citations given out in school zones and $75 red light camera tickets.
An audit of Xerox's cameras showed some had double-digit error rates and tests of Brekford's system disclosed widespread problems.
Three speed camera companies have registered lobbyists with the city in an attempt to win the rights to run the camera system when the city resurrects it. Harris has said the administration is waiting for the City Council to complete an investigation of Baltimore's camera problems before requesting new bids.
This is the latest in a series of events in Baltimore's currently mothballed Speed Camera program which has been going on since 2012.
   - In October of 2012 the Maryland Drivers Alliance was provided several videos of ticketed trucks which were CLEARLY not traveling the recorded speed.  The city had not responded to complaints from these companies, one of the trucking companies spent hundreds of dollars hiring an attorney to get the tickets dismissed in court.
   - The Baltimore Sun's extensive investigation showed more apparent errors, including large trucks apparently not traveling at the recorded speed.  The city's initial response was denial that there was a serious problem, and to try to out spin the story in other media outlets.
   - Documents retrieved by the Maryland Drivers Alliance in the second half of 2012 proved that the city was aware of multiple erroneous speed camera tickets at a camera on Cold Spring Lane eight months before.
   - Only when the Baltimore Sun found a video showing a COMPLETELY STATIONARY car getting a ticket did enough other media outlets swarm onto the story that the city could not ignore it.
   - It was only in December of 2012 that Xerox actually admitted there were hundreds of systematic errors caused by "radar effects".
   - On top of this, there had been multiple instances where hundreds tickets had been issued based on an incorrectly recorded speed limit.
   - The city commenced an Audit, for the purpose of getting leverage over Xerox in their contract dispute and possible legal action.  This audit was initially *kept secret* when the Baltimore Sun asked for it.  The only reason it was eventually revealed was because it was **leaked** in early 2014.  That audit showed double digit error rates at MANY cameras.
   - The speed camera task force was also found to have conducted *secret meetings* which violated the open meetings act.

The Maryland Drivers Alliance had obtained documents which showed that the the cameras which produced the errors passed all their calibration tests, even on the very day that a stationary car was issued a ticket for speeding, demonstrating that "calibration" does not prove the cameras are accurate in the real world.

Documents obtained from Xerox and from local governments show that "radar effects" are caused by reflection, absorption, and refraction of radar waves by things external to the device, and that any radar based speed camera can thus experience them.  Despite all that has happened, local governments across the state continue to insist speed cameras are reliable. Representatives of speed camera agencies continue to state that because devices are "calibrated" that errors cannot occur.  And representatives of local governments in jurisdictions like Montgomery County have feigned ignorance of the term "radar effects" when asked in court "what are radar effects?" even though the head of Montgomery County's program has said their employees are "trained to identify radar effects".

This year the legislature passed so called "reform" legislation designed to reassure the public, but which did not significantly change the facts on the ground in most speed camera programs.  This legislation was written primarily by local government officials who run speed cameras, particularly from Montgomery County's speed camera program, in a secret legislative work group which the press and public could not observe.  The Cities of Rockville and Gaithersburg had both written "protecting the speed camera program" into their legislative agendas for 2014, and in this effort they claimed success.