Baltimore City

Batts pledges 'dramatic' reform of speed camera process

Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts said Friday that his officers' rushed review of speed camera tickets has produced "unacceptable" mistakes and pledged "dramatic" reform of the system, including increased staffing.

"To be perfectly honest, we've made some mistakes that we shouldn't have been making in reviewing citations," Batts said in his first public comments since The Baltimore Sun found Baltimore's speed cameras have been issuing erroneous citations. "I've sat down and gone through the process, and we're making some dramatic changes. We're going to slow down. We're going to audit the process."

The Police Department has said a single officer typically reviews 1,000 to 1,200 of the machine-generated citations per shift — sometimes as many as five or six per minute. By law, the city must issue a $40 ticket within two weeks of one of its 83 speed cameras snapping a photo of an alleged speeder. With thousands of tickets to process, that means officers are frequently spending only a few seconds reviewing each ticket, leaving little time to properly determine whether the camera correctly nabbed a speeder or an innocent motorist.

During an investigation of area speed camera systems, The Sun discovered a series of erroneous tickets, including violation notices sent to drivers traveling less than 20 miles per hour and one sitting motionless at a red light.

"We're putting systems in place so that we have an error-free system," Batts said, adding that the reforms would include "extra training," "extra supervision" and "extra auditing." He said the reforms were already being implemented.

"We've already started them," he said. "I had a meeting earlier this month. ... I sat down with those responsible for doing the auditing and checking the tickets, and we've already started putting those systems in place."

In an email, police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said the department will increase staffing to review speed camera citations by Jan. 25.

"Our staffing will increase and be broken into quality compliance, speed camera, and red light cameras," he said, adding that the number of additional staff has not been determined. "This will be phased in as cameras come on line and is a direct response to the number of tickets we will be reviewing."

The police officials did not say which units in the department would provide the additional staff.

A city councilman who has called for an investigation of the city's camera system praised the promised changes. "I'm very much in support of increasing the staffing and training to make sure the only people getting tickets are the ones who deserve them," said Councilman Brandon Scott of Northeast Baltimore.

Ragina Averella, manager of government affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said the motorist advocacy group was encouraged by Batts' comments. The changes "will hopefully improve the review process and minimize the issuance of erroneous citations," said Averella, who serves on a city task force studying the camera system.

Critics of the automated cameras have argued that the city relies too much on technology, which is known to sometimes produce false readings, and skimps on doing a substantive review of the tickets. For instance, city officials have acknowledged that in 2011, their red light camera system issued about 2,000 tickets to motorists with a signature bearing the name of a dead police officer.

Khalil A. Zaied, the city's transportation director, has said he's concerned that police officers are not doing a careful review of citations.

"It obviously doesn't make any sense for a police officer to be reviewing three to four to five tickets per minute," Zaied said recently. "That is going to make it very difficult."

Batts' comments came after a Friday morning news conference with faith leaders in East Baltimore. There, he empathized with innocent motorists who receive erroneous tickets, such as Lauraville lawyer Daniel Doty, whom city officials accused of speeding at 38 mph when he was actually sitting motionless at a red light.

"No one, including myself, wants to get a ticket for something that you did not do," Batts said. "The impact of taking time off from your job, the impact of having to pay something like that is unacceptable."

Later, Batts called The Sun to emphasize that Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has created a task force to analyze the cameras, and that too many people are speeding on city roads.

"The purpose of the cameras is to protect kids," he said. "We have a lot of people speeding near schools."

The city's former speed camera vendor, Xerox State & Local Solutions, acknowledged last month that several of Baltimore's cameras have an error rate of greater than 5 percent. And the city's deputy transportation director said he no longer has full confidence in the accuracy of the city speed cameras' radar systems, prompting officials to start a new "reasonableness" test on two cameras known to have issued erroneous tickets.

As of Jan. 1, a new vendor, Brekford Corp. of Hanover, has taken over operation of the city's speed cameras.

The Sun has also found that tickets issued by Baltimore County, Howard County and the State Highway Administration don't include enough information for drivers receiving tickets to verify their alleged speeds. Several jurisdictions have entered into contracts that pay their vendors by the ticket, an arrangement Gov. Martin O'Malley has said is illegal.