City didn't have enough staff to monitor speed cameras, officials testify

City didn't have enough staff to monitor camera tickets, deputy mayor says.

Baltimore's once-extensive speed camera program failed in part because the city didn't have enough staff to monitor the rush of tickets generated, three officials testified before a City Council investigative committee Monday.

Deputy Mayor Khalil Zaied, who oversaw the system, said it grew to include 83 speed and 81 red light cameras — the most of any city in North America. But Baltimore didn't staff the system with as many workers as some smaller jurisdictions, he said.

"It was not staffed as fully. That's correct," Zaied said in response to questions from City Councilman James B. Kraft, who is leading the council's probe. "We needed more staff."

The city's speed camera system, which was run for years by Xerox State & Local Solutions and briefly by Brekford Corp., was shut down in April 2013 after repeatedly issuing erroneous tickets. An investigation by The Baltimore Sun found errors by many cameras, including tickets issued for slow-moving or stopped cars. A leaked audit of the Xerox system later showed the errors were even more widespread than the city had disclosed, with some cameras having error rates of more than 10 percent. Tests of Brekford's system also disclosed widespread problems.

Over a decade, the network generated more than $140 million for city government through $40 speed camera citations given out in school zones and $75 red light camera tickets. City officials are missing out on millions in lost revenue while the cameras are down. The city was counting on collecting $11.4 million from speed cameras in 2013; $7.5 million in 2014 and $6.9 million in 2015, according to projections before the cameras were shut down.

Monday marked the first day of testimony in the City Council's investigation into what went wrong, whether any crimes were committed, and what could be improved should Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake choose to resurrect the program.

The committee, chaired by Kraft, heard about three hours of testimony from three witnesses. He plans two more hearings this month.

Kraft noted the rushed pace of city reviews of speed camera tickets under Xerox. The Sun reported in 2012 that the Baltimore Police Department expected each officer monitoring the program to review 1,000 to 1,200 of the machine-generated citations per shift — sometimes as many as five or six per minute.

"Would it surprise you to learn it was a rate of one every six seconds?" Kraft asked Zaied of the time spent reviewing a ticket for accuracy.

"Based on the level of staffing, I wouldn't be surprised," Zaied replied.

Jim Harkness, former chief of the Transportation Department's traffic division, testified that Baltimore currently doesn't have enough trained staff to properly monitor a large speed camera program.

"I feel they would have to recruit more staff," said Harkness, who now works for state government.

Darrell Mims, a former operations manager for Brekford, testified that city government placed unreasonable demands on how quickly the smaller Anne Arundel-based company should ramp up the program in 2013. He added that city officials promised the public far fewer errors than was possible. No speed camera program can be error-free, he testified.

"It made no sense," Mims said of the rush to restart the system, "but everybody wanted it done yesterday. ... If the city decides to do it again, they should get more people that have a lot more extensive experience."

After shutting the program down in 2013, city officials had said they wanted to resurrect in 2014. But the mayor pledged to wait for the City Council to complete its investigation before requesting new bids. The investigation is expected to stretch into next year.

Adrienne Barnes, a spokeswoman for the city's Transportation Department, said the agency is working on a request for proposals for a new speed camera program. But she said it would be smaller than in the past and have better monitoring from city staff.

"The prior program relied too heavily on the vendor to provide quality control," Barnes said. "We plan to start out real slowly and do more in-house staffing for that task."

She said there is "no definitive" time frame for launching the new program, but transportation officials hope it will happen in 2015. Three speed camera companies have registered lobbyists with the city in an attempt to win the rights to run the system.

During the committee hearing, both Kraft and City Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector said they want a low error rate to be a requirement of the contract.

This year, the Maryland General Assembly approved legislation that will provide new protections for motorists from erroneous tickets and other speed camera abuses. Among other measures, the legislation requires local governments to publish detailed annual reports and subjects contractors to damages if their error rate exceeds 5 percent.

In response to other questions, both Zaied and Harkness testified they were made aware of allegations concerning "tampering" in the city's speed camera system, but Zaied said no allegation was ever proved. Harkness said he sent such allegations to the city's law department.

Zaied said he wasn't aware of systemic problems with Baltimore's speed camera system until they were reported by The Sun. He called the 2013 transition between Xerox and Brekford "frustrating" because Xerox was not fully cooperative with city government.

The city reached settlement agreements with the two vendors — paying Xerox $2.3 million for invoices dating to late 2012. The city paid Brekford $600,000, plus $2.2 million for the purchase of 72 speed cameras that officials don't expect to use for enforcement.

City Councilman Robert Curran pointed to documents showing missing data from Brekford's reports. One Department of Transportation memo "expressed a lack of confidence in the Brekford data due to 30,000 events missing from [the Brekford system's] reports."

Spector asked what could will be done with the dozens of inoperable cameras along city streets.

"Maybe we can sell them for scrap?" she proposed.

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

twitter.com/lukebroadwater

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