The replacement of all of Baltimore's speed cameras and the police department's decision to beef up the review process for the tickets they generate are welcome signs that Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's administration is taking seriously the need to correct problems with the system. Those steps hold the promise of eliminating many of the technical and human errors that have led to some motorists getting tickets they clearly did not deserve. But they do not eliminate the need for the General Assembly to enact reforms to the state's speed camera law to correct other flaws in how they are used in the city and other jurisdictions.
The way the cameras are supposed to work is that when a car passes one at a rate of 12 mph or more over the speed limit, it snaps two pictures a fraction of a second apart, showing the car, its license plate and a stationary object. What happens next varies by jurisdiction, but under state law, each ticket must include a signed statement by a law enforcement officer attesting that the recorded images show that the vehicle was speeding.
But in several instances documented by The Sun's Scott Calvert and Luke Broadwater, vehicles got tickets that were flagrantly erroneous. In some instances, trucks were clocked at speeds of 70 mph or more on city streets when examinations of the photos showed they weren't speeding at all. In one case, the time-stamped images suggested that a car had traveled back in time. And in the most obviously flawed ticket, a city man was given a ticket that showed his car stopped at a red light with the brake lights on.
In all those instances, both the technology and human reviews failed. Baltimore's former speed camera vendor, Xerox State and Local Solutions, found some cameras had error rates of as high as 5 percent. And city police were reviewing so many tickets so quickly that they might approve as many as four or five in a minute.
The company with which Baltimore is negotiating a new speed camera contract, Hanover-based Brekford Corp., insisted that the city needs all new cameras with more advanced radar technology to cut down on some of the technological errors that plagued the old system. And Police Commissioner Anthony Batts says he will beef up staffing and change the review procedures for tickets. Those are both excellent and substantive steps, but they are still not enough to restore public confidence in the cameras.
A key question that remains unresolved is whether the city's contract with Brekford will pay the company a flat fee or on a per-ticket basis. Baltimore paid Xerox almost half of each $40 ticket, despite a state law that legislators say they had written with the intent of forbidding such an arrangement, for fear that it could lead to a financial incentive for a vendor to issue unwarranted citations. City officials have said it was their goal to avoid a per-ticket contract, but the deal is not yet done.
Meanwhile, Baltimore County recently switched from a flat fee to a per-ticket contract. Legislators need to reform the law to remove any ambiguity on what constitutes a "bounty system" for speed camera tickets, and if possible, they need to do so in a way that does not grandfather in any existing arrangements.
Legislators also need to codify guidelines for where the cameras can be placed and to require all jurisdictions to follow Baltimore City's lead in producing time stamps on the ticket photos that are precise enough to allow a manual calculation of a vehicle's speed. The assembly should explore the idea of requiring camera operators to paint markings on the pavement to help those reviewing the tickets determine how far a vehicle travels between the two photos.
But part of what is fueling public distrust of the city's camera system is beyond the power of any legislation to fix. Even as the Rawlings-Blake administration is taking prudent steps to reduce errors, it is undercutting its own efforts through its defiance and opacity in response to questions about the cameras.
The mayor's glib initial response when asked why city speed camera revenue was going up, not down as it has in other jurisdictions — that they are a "minor inconvenience for people who routinely break the law" — was not helpful. Neither was the mayor's news release reporting that the majority of tickets go to non-city residents. Nor is the city's refusal to say whether the cameras are operating at all during the period between the end of the Xerox contract and the beginning of Brekford's. A city spokeswoman said details of what cameras are on or offline are kept confidential out of a fear that doing otherwise would lead to a surge of speeders. That concern is not entirely unwarranted, but it is trumped by the public's right to know what the government is doing on its behalf.