Mayor Rahm Emanuel's administration has nearly doubled to 16,000 the number of red light camera tickets now eligible for review after a Tribune investigation that found suspicious ticket spikes throughout Chicago, but city officials continue to sidestep broader questions about the system's operation.
In the two weeks since the investigation was published, the mayor and his transportation chief, Rebekah Scheinfeld, have declined to address the issue of the fundamental soundness of a program prone to wild swings in ticketing that officials still cannot explain.
Instead, they are increasing their focus on whether drivers broke the law at a dozen intersections cited by the Tribune as the strongest examples of the problems. City Hall critics say the administration's attention on individual cases is misplaced, and they are calling for a broader look at the fairness of a program that has raised nearly half a billion dollars for Chicago in $100 increments.
"It looks to me like they are going to try to get through this by going back and looking at a few tickets without taking responsibility for their own lack of oversight at the highest levels," said Ald. Scott Waguespack, 32nd, an outspoken Emanuel critic who is among 19 aldermen calling for City Council hearings to investigate.
"Well, the first thing they need to do? Acknowledge they have a serious problem," Waguespack said. "And to me, the fact that they haven't is a serious problem in itself."
>>Full coverage: Tribune investigates Chicago’s red light cameras
In a brief interview Friday, Scheinfeld said that while the city is focused on the review process at the dozen intersections most prominently featured in the Tribune report, her staff is working with the city's inspector general to find the causes of the spikes.
"We are taking this very seriously," Scheinfeld said in her first interview since the story broke July 18. "If we find evidence that points to inconsistent enforcement, then we will be addressing those situations appropriately. At this time we are not aware of any specific evidence of the kinds of inconsistent enforcement you are talking about."
Scheinfeld would not commit to refunds in those cases.
"I think it would be unfair to speculate on what we would do," she said. "But we want to make sure we maintain the public's confidence in the red light camera program.
"Our first priority is to look at the 12 that got the most attention. But we are looking at all of them. The 16,000 is still just for those 12 locations, but we are being very inclusive."
On Thursday, city officials told the Tribune that they have broadened the number of letters being sent to ticketed motorists eligible for a review from the 9,000 Emanuel announced to 16,000, which they have identified from the dozen intersections featured in the Tribune report.
They have also reached out to Redflex Traffic Systems Inc., the camera company Emanuel fired last year amid bribery allegations, and asked for its help retrieving video evidence long since discarded by the city. According to the administration, the company was able to provide the videos in all 16,000 cases now eligible for review.
In an email response Thursday to a series of Tribune questions, the administration said it is "looking at all potential causes of these anomalies" and that it has no evidence "that there was any purposeful intent to alter the methods of enforcement at a particular intersection."
A 10-month Tribune investigation that analyzed more than 4 million automated red light camera citations issued since 2007 found that thousands of drivers got tickets during dozens of unexplained spikes throughout the city. More than 13,000 tickets were issued during the 12 most dramatic spikes.
Cameras that normally tagged only several cars a day suddenly and temporarily shot up to as many as 56 per day. The duration of yellow lights — a critical factor in ticketing — varied widely in some cases. At some of the spikes, the rates of ticket appeals also rocketed up.
Experts who reviewed the Tribune's findings concluded that such dramatic swings could be caused only by faulty equipment or human tinkering. They said refunds were in order because tickets issued under such questionable circumstances would be unfair even if technically valid.
At one location on the city's North Side, the Tribune examined every ticket issued from one camera for an entire year. It found that for six months before a 12-day spike, no drivers were issued tickets from the right-turn-only lane. Of the 563 tickets issued during the spike, all but three were for right turns on red. And then after the spike it went back to the previous pattern.
"It sure as hell shouldn't look like this," Joseph Schofer, a Northwestern University engineering professor who examined the Tribune's finding, said in the initial report. "Suddenly everyone at that intersection decided to only turn right? I don't think so."
In the wake of the Tribune's report, Emanuel told reporters he has ordered the new vendor to be more vigilant, that his office intends to post daily ticket counts online, and that city officials will be more diligent in their oversight of the program.
But Emanuel and his aides have largely focused their efforts on a review of only 12 spike-prone intersections most prominently featured in the Tribune report. Asked how it intends to address the dozens of other spike intersections representing tens of thousands more citations that were less prominently featured, the city said "we are focusing our efforts to offer the additional review during those anomalies that were most dramatic as the Tribune identified."
"We continue to review data from all of the intersections to detect other anomalies, as well as investigating all potential causes of these anomalies," the Emanuel administration said in its email response. "And we do not agree with your assertion that any driver behavior was targeted."
There are broader questions about oversight as well because city officials said they were unaware of the ticket spikes despite requirements in the city's contract that Redflex conduct daily monitoring for any anomalies. City Hall has not provided any records related to such problems with the system, and Redflex has declined repeated Tribune requests for interviews.
The administration has identified the auditing firm of KPMG LLP as the outside auditor it will pay $90 per hour to conduct the ticket review process. City officials declined to say if the process will be open to public scrutiny.
According to the city, each eligible driver will receive a letter containing an email address, mailing address and telephone number they can call to request the review. A sample letter provided to the Tribune tells drivers they can also request a review at any of the city's payment centers. Ticket holders will have 45 days from the time they receive the letter to request a review.
Once it is requested, an auditor at KPMG will receive the video and photographic evidence, review it to see whether a violation occurred and make a finding within 30 days, the letter says. People will be notified by mail whether they will receive a refund, the letter says.
In the usual appeals process, ticket holders can stand before the administrative law judge in a public forum and make an oral argument or have an attorney present. This review makes no provisions for oral presentations and offers no recourse for motorists who may not agree with the auditor's decision.
According to the auditor's contract, it appears the KPMG auditors will be reviewing only the video and photograph to determine whether a violation occurred. There is no mention in the contract of the more stringent approach during the normal appeals process, where hearing officers go through a checklist aimed at figuring out whether the camera system and ticketing process operated as intended.
The administration also said that despite the city policy that video evidence be destroyed after two years, it is now available "for citations by all potentially affected motorists during the identified spikes over the last seven years." The city said the evidence will be posted and available on the city's website to any ticketed driver who receives a letter offering a new review.
According to the administration, the video was obtained through Redflex, the Arizona company that founded Chicago's program and grew it into the largest in the nation. Emanuel fired the company last year after its officials acknowledged it had paid up to $2 million to the former city official who oversaw the contract since its inception, an arrangement it said was likely to be considering bribery by authorities.
In May, the former City Hall manager was charged with bribery by federal prosecutors in an ongoing corruption investigation. He denied all charges. But Redflex continued to manage the program until March of this year while City Hall hired a replacement.
"We have also asked Redflex for additional reports or information that might help to explain any anomalies or spikes at these intersections," the city email said.
For months, Redflex executives have declined to answer questions during the Tribune investigation. On Friday, a Redflex spokeswoman confirmed the company is assisting the city in addressing the controversy but again declined to comment further.
City transportation officials were first presented evidence of the spikes Jan. 14, when the Tribune sent 24 examples in an effort to understand their causes. The Emanuel administration said it was unaware of the spikes and could find no legitimate reason for them then or in the six months since.
Only after the Tribune published its report did Scheinfeld, Emanuel's transportation commissioner, appear before a City Council committee hearing to suggest that one particularly dramatic spike at the corner of 119th and Halsted streets was probably the result of diverted traffic because of bridge repairs on nearby I-57. "We think it is likely that drivers used Halsted to bypass this work," she told aldermen.
When the Tribune first presented evidence of this spike in December, city transportation officials suggested it was caused by funeral processions.
A Tribune examination of each of the 1,717 tickets issued during that 52-day spike found no evidence of funeral processions. And interviews with more than two dozen of the ticketed drivers there, all of whom were asked about road construction or other unusual events, found no evidence that any of them were diverted because of I-57 bridge repairs or any other road construction.
Scheinfeld also told aldermen during her appearance that such spikes are normal.
"There are always spikes in any automated enforcement system due to fluctuations in traffic volume and driver behavior," she said. It was a point she reiterated during her interview Friday.
Northwestern's Schofer, who sits on a city transportation advisory panel, called Scheinfeld's assertions "nonsense."
"Come on," he said. "That would explain spikes of that level? Nonsense. It's just fundamental; you can't look at something that is red and call it green."
>>Full coverage: Tribune investigates Chicago’s red light cameras