Red-light cameras are defended

Officials say programs in area are unlike one ruled illegal in Calif. Officials defend red-light cameras

September 06, 2001|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

Against the backdrop of National Stop on Red Week, Baltimore-area police and officials defended Maryland's use of red-light cameras, saying they differ from the San Diego program that was ruled to violate California law.

Howard County took a step further from the San Diego program yesterday by announcing that it has switched from paying a per-citation fee to a per-month fee to its camera company.

But AAA Mid-Atlantic said Baltimore's camera program is disturbingly similar to the one in San Diego, which has drawn national criticism for improperly outsourcing police work to a private company.

Both cities contracted Washington-based Lockheed Martin IMS to operate the cameras, collect and process the film, and make the initial review of the photographs. San Diego suspended its program in June, but red-light cameras are still clicking in Baltimore.

"AAA has a major problem with the city's program, where there's a bounty per ticket paid to one vendor," said Lon Anderson, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, which pushed for legislation in Maryland to allow red-light cameras. "That sets up all kinds of possible conflicts."

Lockheed receives 15 percent to 36 percent, or $11 to $27, of each $75 citation issued through red-light cameras in Baltimore. In San Diego, the company received about 25 percent, or $70 of a $271 fine. The more citations issued at an intersection in Baltimore, the smaller Lockheed's cut, a contract shows.

The Baltimore Department of Public Works oversees the city's red-light camera program. City officials said a police officer signs each citation, but they acknowledged the program is operated entirely out of one of Lockheed's facilities downtown.

"Lockheed does everything," said Robert H. Murrow, a spokesman for Public Works. "The only way the city is involved is that an officer reviews each citation before it is sent out."

On Tuesday, a San Diego Superior Court judge upheld an Aug. 15 ruling that the city violated state law by giving a private company too much control over law enforcement. Judge Ronald Styn also said in his decision that he was troubled by the fee system.

San Diego police initially defended their red-light camera program by saying that an officer carefully reviewed each citation before it was sent out, said Jimmy Valentine, a producer for a news radio show that initiated the San Diego red-light debate in May 2000.

"Turns out, our officer was just rubber-stamping everything that Lockheed told him to," Valentine said yesterday in a phone interview. "What's more, I don't think a cop ever set foot in Lockheed's facility here. They were in total control."

Valentine said Baltimore might soon face the same criticism and legal battles as San Diego because the programs are fundamentally the same: Citations are issued through a Lockheed facility, Lockheed gets a cut of each citation, and police have little oversight of the program.

"That's going to be real trouble for them," Valentine said.

But there are some differences between Baltimore's and San Diego's red-light programs. In San Diego, the flat $271 fine was a criminal charge, whereas the $75 Baltimore fine is civil - meaning it cannot affect insurance rates.

Investigators found that some of the 19 intersections where Lockheed had placed cameras in San Diego had their yellow-light intervals shortened, Valentine said. Public Works officials insist that each of the 34 lights in Baltimore where cameras are stationed meets or exceeds the three-second federal yellow-light standard.

As of April, Lockheed Martin IMS had collected about $3.4 million of the $9.5 million generated through red-light cameras in Baltimore.

Myra Wieman, a spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said she favors Howard County's red-light program over Baltimore's. "Their [Howard's] program is out there for the public to view," she said. "It is an open and fully disclosed operation."

Wieman said it took 48 hours for Howard County to grant AAA's request to tour the Regional Automated Enforcement Center in Columbia, where the county oversees its own and 14 other red-light camera programs.

By contrast, Wieman said, AAA requested a tour of the Lockheed facility in Baltimore three years ago and still has not been allowed in.

Howard County's red-light camera operation is internationally regarded as a model program, said Howard County Police Chief Wayne Livesay. He will present a seminar on it next month in Toronto at the annual International Chiefs of Police meeting.

Immediately after an event promoting National Stop on Red Week in Ellicott City yesterday, Livesay said the county had switched from a per-citation fee paid to Traffipax, its equipment company, to a flat, per-month fee to be paid regardless of how many citations are issued through a red-light camera.

"It's important that we overcome any of those kinds of arguments about who's controlling whom," Livesay said. "We wanted to get away from any inferences."

Red-light camera programs have been operating in Maryland since Howard County's cameras were launched in 1998. Howard, Baltimore County, Anne Arundel County and 12 other jurisdictions all work out of the Regional Automated Enforcement Center.

Other jurisdictions at the regional center still pay Traffipax on a per-citation basis because they each have separate contracts with the company. Police oversee each step of the process, said Howard Lt. Glenn Hansen, who manages the center.

Baltimore County has had cameras operating at 20 intersections since 1999, and data the Police Department released this summer indicate a 55 percent decrease in crashes at those intersections in the first five months of this year compared with the first five months of 2000.

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