Secret audit found city speed cameras had high error rates

By: Luke Broadwater and Scott Calvert

Baltimore’s speed cameras likely charged motorists for thousands more erroneous tickets than previously disclosed, according to data from a secret audit conducted for the city last year and obtained by The Baltimore Sun.

Consultant URS Corp. evaluated the camera system as run by Xerox State and Local Solutions in 2012 and found an error rate of more than 10 percent — 40 times higher than city officials have claimed. The city got those findings last April but never disclosed the high error rate, refusing calls by members of the City Council to release the audit.

The city issued roughly 700,000 speed camera tickets at $40 each in fiscal year 2012. If 10 percent were wrong, 70,000 would have wrongly been charged $2.8 million.

City Council members reacted with dismay and anger when told Wednesday of the audit’s results, asking why the Rawlings-Blake administration didn’t reveal the high error rate months ago and take steps to fully refund fines paid by motorists.

“It’s outrageous. No, it’s beyond outrageous,” said City Councilman Carl Stokes, who has been calling on the city to release the audit. “Who ever heard of a secret audit? We should have told the public immediately. We should have declared complete amnesty, that all of the tickets were null and void. If anybody paid, they should be paid back.”

The audit identified 13 cameras with double-digit error rates, including one at Loch Raven Boulevard that was giving out more erroneous tickets than accurate citations.

A camera in the 1000 block of Caton Ave. had a 35 percent error rate, the audit found. A device at the 6500 block of Eastern Ave. had a 45 percent error rate. And a speed camera in the 5400 block of Loch Raven Blvd. had a 58 percent error rate.

“That is extraordinary,” said City Council member Robert Curran. “Anything more than a 2 percent error rate is unacceptable.”

Throughout 2012, city officials repeatedly claimed the error rate of their 83 cameras was “less than a quarter of one percent” in response to a Sun investigation that documented erroneous speed readings at seven cameras.

City officials said Wednesday that they shut down the entire speed camera program last spring — by then being run by a different company — within a week of reviewing the audit’s findings. They pointed out that they have voided or refunded tickets they believed were obviously erroneous.

“Once it became clear that there were very high error rates, we didn’t feel comfortable with the program, and we moved quickly to take it offline,” said Kevin Harris, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. “I think if you look at the actions we took, it’s clear we did take it seriously, which is why we have voided and refunded all erroneous tickets and told the public immediately that the program would be discontinued until we could vouch for its accuracy.”

City Councilman Brandon Scott said the city’s Department of Transportation should have alerted the public to the audit’s findings immediately. “We’re going to have to work harder to restore public trust,” he said.

A spokesman for Xerox, Carl Langsenkamp, said the company would have no comment on the audit. California-based URS Corp. did not respond to a request for comment.

Xerox operated Baltimore’s speed camera program from the fall of 2009 through 2012, when the city put the contract up for bid again. After The Sun’s report on problems with the system was published in November, Xerox said it had detected a 5.2 percent error rate at five cameras and took them off line in the weeks before its contract ended.

The city selected Brekford Corp. of Anne Arundel County to take over the system starting in January of last year. Brekford’s brief tenure in 2013 was beset by problems; the city shut down their cameras in April and severed its contract with Brekford last month.

The city hired URS last February, in part to review the accuracy of the system as operated by Xerox.

The consulting firm looked at a sample of nearly 1,000 tickets from a random day in 2012 at 37 of the city’s 83 speed cameras. The firm said it could vouch for the accuracy of about 64 percent of tickets. More than 10 percent were found to be in error, while another 26 percent were questionable.

While 13 cameras had double-digit error rates, 12 had no errors, the audit found. The company said it welcomed Xerox’s response to their findings.

Despite calls from the City Council to release the audit, the administration does not plan to do so, Harris said. City Solicitor George Nilson, the administration’s chief lawyer, has said releasing the audit would violate a settlement agreement with Xerox and “create obvious risks and potential exposure for the city.”

In the settlement, the city agreed to pay Xerox $2.3 million for invoices from late 2012. The city also agreed to keep confidential any documents “referring or relating to, or reflecting, each party’s internal considerations, discussions, analyses, and/or evaluations of issues raised during the settlement discussions.”

The settlement was not approved by the Board of Estimates. Comptroller Joan Pratt has said the settlement should have come before the board for consideration.

In late February, the spending board agreed to pay URS $278,000 for work that included an audit of Xerox tickets. Nilson said the audit was “a critical part of the settlement negotiations and figured prominently in the conclusion of those discussions.” He said it was “unequivocally done in anticipation of possible litigation.”

Rawlings-Blake has said the city plans to pursue a smaller camera program this year.

In Annapolis Wednesday, state Sen. Jim Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat, introduced a bill he said is intended to reform speed camera systems in Maryland, including requiring ombudsmen to hear complaints about erroneous tickets.

Brochin said he was concerned about the URS audit’s findings, given that Xerox is the speed camera vendor for the state, Baltimore County, Howard County and elsewhere.

“I would hope that Baltimore County would look at this, study it, and do their own audit,” Brochin said. “The one thing that’s clear is the technology has not been perfected. It’s not fair for the person that’s driving, going the speed limit and getting a bogus ticket.”

Last summer URS also monitored testing aimed at fixing and restarting the camera system under Brekford. Its findings — which the city released to The Sun in response to a public records request — showed persistent problems, including preventable errors.

This month, the city expanded its contract with URS. The Board of Estimates agreed to pay $237,000 for “additional independent monitoring services” of the city’s speed and red-light cameras. The company will monitor “engineering services, documents and preparing of standard operating procedures and business rules,” according to board records.

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