It's a widely held assumption, true or not, that cops give other cops breaks on traffic infractions. A quick flash of the badge, a union sticker on the bumper, a patch on the dashboard are the same as a wink and a nod, and a look the other way.
But the growing number of cameras set up to catch speeders and red-light runners in Baltimore and elsewhere has become the great equalizer for traffic scofflaws — unbiased enforcers of bad driving habits.
Police officers are getting caught, and are crying foul. The camera doesn't care whether a cop is off-duty and going shopping in his personal pickup truck or is on duty and speeding to a bank robbery in a marked police cruiser, lights flashing and siren blaring.
Go through a red light ($75 fine) or speed ($40 fine) and the camera snaps a picture.
There's an official record, and it takes more than a wink and a nod to extend "officer courtesy" to a fellow cop.
Even on-duty officers in marked patrol cars aren't getting out of paying the fines. Many Maryland jurisdictions are holding officers and other emergency workers personally liable for the tickets, unless they can prove they were responding to legitimate emergencies at the time.
Four Montgomery County police officers sued their department over speeding tickets and lost before the state's highest court, in a decision issued late last month.
The ruling from the Maryland Court of Appeals was on a technical issue — whether the county had given the officers enough time to contest the tickets — but the effect of the decision holds police throughout the state accountable for following what the judges called "the rules of the road" like any other licensed driver.
Just how many police officers get caught by the many red light and speed cameras popping up at intersections in Baltimore and elsewhere could not be ascertained. Police officials said statistics were not available.
The policy for Baltimore police is the same for most other jurisdictions when a marked emergency vehicle is captured on camera speeding or running a red light. Department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said officials review dispatch records and if the driver wasn't responding to an emergency, "they are issued tickets and are responsible for paying them."
Police union leaders say that rules requiring lights and sirens when responding to emergencies aren't always practical, or prudent. For example, cops don't speed to bank robberies or burglary calls with lights flashing and siren wailing, to avoid alerting the criminals they're coming, but they still need to get there fast.
Robert F. Cherry, the president of the Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police union, said he hasn't heard many complaints from officers — driving either marked or unmarked cars — about getting hit with tickets from traffic cameras.
But the former homicide detective recalls getting nailed by the cameras while responding to murder scenes in his unmarked Chevy Lumina, and going to court to plead his case. He said most officers simply pay the fines rather than risk an internal investigation and questions about driving techniques that if not illegal, don't always conform to the letter of departmental rules.
Cherry said that an officer might blow a light or speed without using lights and sirens for a variety of reasons, such as to investigate a tip that a guy on the next block had a gun or was selling drugs. In cases like these, the "emergencies" aren't always on dispatchers' official records.
"Maybe there's a reason why the officer wasn't going to a call, still went through a red light and was still doing his job," Cherry said. "The last thing we want to do is Monday-morning quarterback from headquarters or from the courts. I don't want to limit our front-line officers in making decisions when their goal is to make the public safe."
Some officers appear to have come up with creative ways to stay red-light-camera-shy. Last year, city police accused two officers of putting stolen license plates on their unmarked cars. The investigation continues, but police sources said at the time that the officers either wanted to prevent drug dealers from recognizing their cars or wanted to avoid getting tickets from the cameras.
Tragedy is also a part of the debate. In October, Officer Thomas Portz Jr. was killed on U.S. 40 when his cruiser hit the back of a stopped fire engine. He wasn't responding to a call, and police concluded that he was distracted by a film crew on the other side of the road and was speeding at 71 mph before the crash.
Baltimore police commanders have for years expressed concern about the way officers drive, and have tried various crackdowns — from fines for failing to buckle up to writing traffic citations for minor accidents.
The city department is one of the few in the state that make officers pay for damage to their cruisers in accidents deemed their fault. In January, Baltimore officers reported 41 accidents, 21 of which were ruled their fault. That's down from the same month last year, in which 56 police accidents occurred, again with 21 ruled the officer's fault.
Recent yearly statistics were not immediately available. But the 41 accidents in January, while down 27 percent from last year, put the department on a course for more than 490 crashes in 2011. That is down from a high of 554 in 1995 but much higher than the 255 in 1998.
Police academy recruits take a rigorous driving course administered by the Maryland State Police, and officers involved in preventable accidents are required to take remedial training. Police note that officers in Baltimore respond to about 1.2 million calls each year, and are driving in a compact and crowded urban environment.
The issue of police driving practices became a vital component of the Maryland Court of Appeals in rendering its decision in the Montgomery County case. Even though the judges ruled on a technicality involving due process, the judges called "police officers and the rules of the road … integral to the resolution of this case."
In Maryland, the court said, drivers of emergency vehicles can violate traffic laws in "precisely three circumstances" — responding to an emergency call, pursing a suspect and racing to a fire alarm. State law requires the drivers to slow at stop signs and red lights and exceed speed limits "only so long as the driver does not endanger life or property."
Just how serious Baltimore police take safe driving — at least in their rules — can be seen in the department's general orders, which state: "The operation of a motor vehicle requires the same care and caution as that required in the use of your firearm."
Rules for Baltimore police are more restrictive than state law, requiring that officers stop at all red lights and stop signs before going through and going no faster than 10 mph over the speed limit, which is 20 to 30 mph on most city streets (It should be noted that drivers have to exceed the limit by at least 12 mph to trigger the speed cameras).
None of the Montgomery County officers were responding to an emergency. The appellate judges concluded that whether fighting bureaucracy or crime, cops need to adhere to the law like everyone else.
In navigating the cumbersome system, the judges wrote, "the officers were no worse off than a regular citizen."