By Scott Calvert and Luke Broadwater, The Baltimore Sun
10:00 PM EST, December 21, 2013
Defective radar. Wrong citation numbers. Error rates as high as 30 percent.
Such problems persisted during months of testing aimed at fixing and restarting Baltimore's speed and red-light camera system, newly released documents show. Test results and other records obtained by The Baltimore Sun provide the first public look at persistent problems that led officials to cut ties last week with the system's contractor.
City officials had ordered Brekford Corp. of Anne Arundel County to stop issuing citations in April because of errors, and three months later they began putting the system through tests aimed at salvaging a five-year deal signed in 2012. But as summer turned to fall, an array of problems remained, according to weekly updates filed with the city and obtained by The Sun through a Public Information Act request.
As of Oct. 18, hundreds of Brekford's dummy red-light tickets bore different citation numbers than those in its own system, and many test tickets had a "mail by" date that conflicted with legal requirements, the records show. On speed cameras, a consultant for the city noted that Brekford had swapped out "a couple of defective radars" and waited four months to move a camera to a median as directed by city officials.
Into October, the documents show, 10 percent of the mock speed camera tickets were showing errors judged to be within the vendor's control — double the error rate allowed by the city.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said she remains committed to automated enforcement despite problems with Brekford and the city's previous camera vendor, Xerox State and Local Solutions. The release of the documents, which shed light on difficulties in fixing Brekford's system, came as city officials outlined plans to search for another contractor.
"It's a big mess, and we need to fix it as soon as possible," said State Del. Curt Anderson, chairman of the city's House delegation.
Del. Cheryl D. Glenn, a Baltimore Democrat who sits on the House transportation subcommittee, said the city should have revealed the problems with Brekford sooner. She now believes Baltimore should scrap speed cameras entirely.
"This is not our first bad experience with the speed camera program," she said. "This is our second bad experience. I don't believe, in these tough economic times, that we should impose anything more on our residents. This program should be scrapped."
Representatives of Brekford did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The reports show that Brekford worked with the city government to try to fix various problems, but the documents generally do not contain direct responses from the company.
City officials would not explain in detail why they cut ties with Brekford — which will receive $600,000 under the settlement — citing a non-disparagement clause in the contract termination agreement approved by the Board of Estimates. Transportation officials also declined to discuss test findings by California-based URS Corp., a consultant hired to provide outside monitoring of the camera program.
"I can't really talk about those kinds of things," Transportation Director William M. Johnson said in an interview Thursday. "The chapter with Brekford and the past program is closed. We're moving forward now."
Brekford's staff "worked really hard to try to help sort things out with the program," Johnson said, adding, "It just didn't work out."
Getting cameras back online is "a high priority," he said, predicting that would happen in 2014 after a new contractor is chosen.
"When we do restart the program, it will be a program we can stand behind," he said. "That's why we're taking our time, evaluating all the options."
Officials have already ruled out the continued use of a "bounty system" that has paid vendors a share of each $40 speed camera fine and $75 red-light fine.
Glenn said that if the city insists on pressing forward, officials should require any potential contractor to undergo a probationary period. Such a measure would allow the city to more easily cut ties with a contractor that can't perform, she said.
"If you are new employee on a job, you have a probationary period," she said. "I don't know why we can't do that with any vendor for a speed-camera program."
Anderson, a Democrat, questioned why the city agreed to pay Brekford $600,000. The city also agreed to complete a $2.2 million purchase of 72 speed cameras that Johnson has acknowledged the city probably won't be able to use for speed cameras. He has said the cameras could instead be used for traffic studies.
"If the problems are all Brekford's fault, why are we afraid of a lawsuit?" asked Anderson, who remains a supporter of speed cameras as a way to get drivers to slow down and make school zones safer.
Michael D. Schrock, a city lawyer, said the settlement meant the city would not have to worry about possible litigation with Brekford and could move forward in selecting a new contractor.
Problematic from start
Brekford was supposed to represent a fresh start for Baltimore when officials awarded the camera contract to the firm over longtime incumbent Xerox in November 2012.
By then, city transportation officials had known for months about erroneous speed readings from a radar-equipped Xerox camera on West Cold Spring Lane. Days later, such problems began spilling into public view as a Sun investigation documented inaccurate citations at seven cameras across the city. In one case, a Mazda was ticketed for speeding while stopped a red light.
Around the time that the city switched vendors, a lobbyist for Xerox warned officials that Brekford lacked the experience to run a program as big as Baltimore's, with a resume limited to more modest operations in cities like Salisbury and Hagerstown.
Maurice Nelson, Brekford's managing director, insisted that the company was up to the challenge. "We're not promising perfection, but we're promising we'll strive for it," Nelson said last December.
Though Brekford formally took over the city's camera program in January, a bumpy handoff from the previous vendor kept it from issuing citations until late February. For red-light cameras, Brekford used the 81-camera network supplied by Xerox; it began rolling out its own speed cameras featuring so-called tracking radar.
On April 16, The Sun asked transportation officials why a Brekford speed camera on The Alameda had been programmed for a 25 mph speed limit when posted signs showed the actual limit to be 30 mph. The discrepancy meant some drivers were being ticketed despite not going at least 12 mph over the limit, the legal threshold for issuing an automated citation.
That afternoon, the city announced that the entire speed and red-light camera program had been halted indefinitely, citing the Alameda camera error and a problem with how payment options were listed on tickets.
The suspension signaled an end to the flow of badly needed revenue — speed cameras generated $50 million for the city over three years. Transportation officials said it also took away a public safety tool that helped deter speeding in areas around schools, even as critics pointed out that many cameras were blocks away. The shutdown brought a new public embarrassment months after the problems with Xerox had dominated headlines.
From April until last week, city officials said little publicly about the status of the camera program.
But out of public view, the city and Brekford had spent more than three months trying to fix a range of problems so enforcement could resume.
The testing was monitored by URS, hired under a $278,000 contract to provide "specialized monitoring services," ensure that "protocols and policies are properly implemented," and prepare monthly progress reports.
Documents released through the public records request show the consultant chronicled test results almost weekly from mid-July to late October. Apart from a draft report dated Aug. 16, most of the information is contained in grids and charts, with no accompanying text to provide further details.
From the start, the records show, there were problems.
During the latter half of July, for example, URS noted difficulty some days in turning the cameras on and off. Maintenance by Brekford caused "misalignment" with one camera, an issue the company said it would address. And Police Department supervisors charged with reviewing tickets for accuracy reported having trouble accessing an online citation queue.
In addition, the consultant wrote, Brekford's speed cameras had a "high controllable error rate," meaning tickets were invalid because of an equipment malfunction, a blurry license plate photograph or another reason considered within the company's control.
Of 1,676 potential tickets, one in five had to be discarded because of a controllable error, URS found.
Over the next three months, the controllable error rate fluctuated, dropping as low as 4 percent and rising as high as 30 percent, records show.
Some problems endured for weeks, URS found. For five weeks, the consultant noted that Brekford had not submitted certain data reports. In early September the reports were "finally submitted." But over the next seven weeks, the company either did not provide reports or they were late or incomplete.
In October, new problems arose. The city and URS noticed that some speed camera test tickets indicated that vehicles were accelerating, even though the brake lights were clearly visible in photographs that accompanied citations. Documents included in the public records request offered no explanation for this.
Police continued to have trouble accessing citations in Brekford's system "from time to time."
URS did note signs of progress in October. "Brekford has been making an effort to communicate better," the consultants wrote, "but some improvements with communication are still needed."
During the second half of October, the controllable error rate dropped to 4 percent, within the city's allowable range for speed camera tickets. Meanwhile, police reported fewer problems setting up and shutting down cameras.
But significant issues remained. Among the concerns listed by the consultant on whether the camera system was running "error free" were these entries:
• "Brekford has identified a couple of defective radars in October and swapped them out."
• "Hundreds of Red Light citations have different citation #'s in [Brekford's system] than what is shown on the printed citations."
• Many red-light tickets had a "mail by" date that was 12 days later than allowed under law.
Last week the Board of Estimates voted 4-1 to approve the breakup deal, with only Comptroller Joan Pratt dissenting. She argued that the city could declare the company in "default" of its contract, and therefore make no additional payments.
State Sen. Verna L. Jones-Rodwell, chair of Baltimore's Senate delegation, believes the city made a mistake by entering into a "long-term contract" with the company until it proved it could handle such a large system.
She recommended the city hold a trial competition among bidders for a 2014 speed camera contract.
"We should know what they're capable of," she said. "There should be a thorough vetting."
After voting to cut ties with Brekford on Wednesday, Rawlings-Blake pledged to move forward with a new — but smaller — speed camera system.
"You don't cut your nose off to spite your face," she said to suggestions that the city get rid of cameras. "We had an experience that didn't work for Baltimore. My goal is to get a system that works, not to scrap it."
Documents obtained by The Baltimore Sun outline problems found in testing Baltimore's speed and red-light camera system. The city recently cut ties with contractor Brekford Corp., while agreeing to pay $600,000 in a settlement. Among the highlighted problems:
•Difficulty in turning cameras on and off
•Citation numbers in system that did not match those on printed citations
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