Police, workers say facility in Howard is just the ticket

Citations processed for red-light violations

September 21, 2001|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

Since red-light camera programs began in the Baltimore region three years ago, Tammy Johnson and her co-workers have reviewed thousands of photos showing vehicles darting across intersections. But the full-color, digitized shot of a school bus blowing through a red light took Johnson by surprise.

"Ooh, there we go," she said, using her computer mouse to zoom in on the license plate. "Now that's one driver that I hope we get. He should know better."

Here, in a nondescript Howard County office building, is the heart of the state's red-light camera operations - a center that has processed more than 25,000 photos and about 17,000 citations this year. Here, photos of vehicles running red lights in Baltimore, Howard and Anne Arundel counties - and 13 other localities - are translated into $75 citations.

The Regional Automated Enforcement Center, where Johnson works with about 90 other employees, houses Maryland's largest red-light camera program, and it's poised to work with more cities and counties. Yet its name and its location - near a Pizza Hut on Bendix Road - reveal nothing about this unusual partnership between area police and two companies, Electronic Data Systems Corp. and Traffipax.

Each citation is born with two quick flashes from one of the 96 cameras mounted in 16 Maryland counties and cities. Within 14 days, those snapshots wind their way through a series of checks and balances, and about 70 percent end up in the mailbox of the person listed on the vehicle's registration.

Years before she started working at the center, Johnson, a Columbia resident, stared in disbelief at photos of her car running a red light. "I was like, `Is that really me?'" she said. "But when I realized it was, I started feeling really bad. What if someone had been going through the other way? My doctor's appointment that I was rushing to just wasn't worth it."

Now, she works for the company that processed her citation.

Inside the center, the stream of chatter is like that at any office - weekend plans, restaurant tips - but most workers believe they're performing a public service each time they punch in.

"I really feel like I'm doing my part to keep roads safe," Johnson said.

Many lawbreakers agree. Thank-you notes fill two bulletin boards in the center. "Sorry about running the red light," one note reads. "I think this camera thing is really great."

Most notes are part apology and part congratulations. A few ask whether there's any way - just this once - that the offense can be forgiven.

What started as a Howard County program in 1998 has evolved into a model for the still-developing field of automated enforcement. This summer, Howard Police Chief Wayne Livesay and Lt. Glenn Hansen, who helped launch the program, participated in a congressional hearing about red-light cameras. Livesay will give a presentation about the regional center at an international Chiefs of Police conference in the fall.

"We recognize that public perception is very important, so we've never hesitated to show people how we operate," Hansen said.

Inside, police desks are on each end of the work area for company employees. Police from Howard, Baltimore and Montgomery counties are at the site full time; police from smaller localities, such as Laurel and Bel Air, visit as needed, usually once or twice a week. Baltimore does not participate in the center.

Soon, the center will become busier: Howard County plans to add four digital cameras to its 24 standard cameras, and four more localities might join, Hansen said.

The center also houses area operations for EDS, which prepares citations for police review, and Traffipax, which provides and maintains the cameras.

Traffipax workers collect film from the cameras, develop it and deliver negatives to the center. There, Johnson and other EDS employees scan the film into the computer system and pull up digitized images for an initial review.

Each infraction must have two snapshots of the same vehicle - one as it approaches the intersection and one as it travels through the intersection. The license plate - and red lights - must be clearly visible in both shots.

Photos are thrown out if an officer is shown waving traffic through, or if the vehicle is registered to a rental agency. Photos of marked police vehicles are forwarded to police for review.

If a potential infraction clears this first set of hurdles, EDS workers forward it to police employees, a mix of civilians and sworn officers, for a second review.

Once the photos pass police inspection, a citation containing a color photograph is printed out and reviewed to ensure that the recipient will be able to read the license plate. Finally, EDS workers stuff the citations into envelopes and mail them.

The multilevel system is designed to help maintain the program's integrity and the public's perception of it, Hansen said.

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