Speed surveillance scamming spreads statewide.

I don’t usually highlight topical events, and certainly not in a way that they become central to a blog post.  But in this case, I just couldn’t resist—the news is too timely, and it eerily echoes a subject I’ve covered on this blog as well as a rewrite at New Geography: the jurisdictionally defined speed trap.  More often than not, a tiny community—a village, an impoverished town, a designated special services district endowed with a certain degree of autonomy—will harness whatever police power it has and turn it into a source of revenue.  I’ve explored this trend in East Cleveland, a impoverished inner-ring suburb of Ohio’s largest metro, which has struggled to raise revenue after decades of watching its middle class tax base dwindle to nothing.

Based on the placard, it would appear that entire city is hotwired with cameras and radar detectors, and that apparently is the reputation the city carries with it among locals.  Speeding carries a stiff penalty in East Cleveland, but a jurisdiction with high poverty, notorious struggles with violent crime, persistent population loss, and failing schools has few alternatives to raising revenue for city services.  Thus, it issues rampant traffic citations.  Here’s another, more permanent warning about speed limits just a few blocks away from the placard:

In most jurisdictions, school zones employ even more aggressive enforcement and result in particularly steep fines.  East Cleveland is inevitably no different.

A more subversive example featured on the same blog, is (or was) the Village of New Rome, a tiny municipality of less than a tenth of a square mile in size and less than 100 people, which Ohio’s capital, Columbus, nearly surrounded.  New Rome had little to its name beyond a notorious stretch of U.S. Highway 40.  By passing an ordinance that shifted the speed limit from 45 to 35 mph years ago, the Village used this road segment within its jurisdiction as a ruthless bait to catch unsuspecting motorists.  This twilight photo, though not winning any National Geographic prizes, still conveys the ordinariness of the stretch of road that snagged so many unwitting speeders.

While speeding served as the public justification for New Rome’s many, many citations, the police force would flag motorists for dirty plates, burned-out tail lights, driving too slowly, tailgating…you name it.  Eventually, many motorists had learned that they had to circumvent this stretch of the highway to avoid getting ticketed.  Further research from concerned citizens—who founded the now-defunct website New Rome Sucks to inform the community of this village’s perfidy)–revealed that New Rome was funding its own government solely through traffic citations.  In 2004, the Attorney General of Ohio ruled that New Rome had displayed persistent corruption and incompetence in self-governance, and he forced the town to disincorporate, to the relief of just about everyone beyond New Rome itself.  For decades, New Rome managed to exploit its size, relative obscurity, and its jurisdiction over a major arterial to enrich its constituents throw citing motorists just passing through.

Linndale, a micro-suburb on the south side of Cleveland, suffers a similar reputation as New Rome for being a speed trap that, within its pinky-toenail boundaries, makes the most of a clipping of I-71 that passes through it.  I only covered the village peripherally in my blog post, first because I only learned of its reputation ex post facto, but also because the Supreme Court of Ohio has defended the town’s right to patrol its boundaries as an appropriate use of police power–apparently the village’s leaders have not indulged in the same duplicity in local governance as their Columbus counterpart.   However, Gov. John Kasich did sign a bill in late 2012 dissolving the Mayor’s Court for villages with fewer than 200 residents; Linndale had 178.   Mayor’s Courts are the primary means of processing and collecting fines for traffic tickets.  While this law does not inhibit the right for municipalities to enforce their speed limits, it ostensibly targets errant jurisdictions that the State feels have abused their police power.  Linndale and other municipalities aggressively appealed this decision but failed to thwart it; Assistant Ohio Attorney General Richard Coglianese and Senator Tom Patton have supported it, conceding that it clearly targets “rogue villages gone wild” through their issuance of speeding tickets.  The Assistant AG provided a telling analogy: if the entire State of Ohio issued tickets at the same rate as Linndale, state’s police would have given out 531,140,644 driving citations in 2012–over 1,000 times more than it actually typically issues.  Linndale has little hope of winning the suit, and Village leaders say they will continue to handle speeding cases through Municipal Court of Parma, a much larger neighboring suburb.  But Sen. Patton, whose jurisdiction includes the Cleveland suburb of Strongsville, admits that he hopes this measure forces the leadership of Linndale to reconsider its methods of collecting revenue. “This really gives law enforcement a bad name, “ Patton observed. “I’ve never seen a Linndale police officer trying to offer assistance to a stranded motorist or help an older lady fix a tire or write up an accident report. They’re there to write tickets.”

Now, what’s the latest kerfuffle in Ohio regarding speed traps?  This time, the controversy heads south to Cincinnati, where the adjacent suburb of Elmwood Place (surrounded on three sides by Cincinnati limits) hired an outside company to install speed monitoring cameras last year, in order to record traffic violations and hand out citations to motorists passing through, largely in response to a pedestrian fatality the previous year.  Like its counterparts of Linndale and New Rome, Elmwood Place is tiny (about one-third of a square mile in size), and hugs some major arterials: though I-75 only skirts the edge of the village, two other arterials intersect in the heart of the town.  And like New Rome and the much larger East Cleveland, Elmwood Place is not prosperous: most estimates place the poverty rate of the population at well over 20%, and it lost about 20% of its inhabitants between 2000 and 2010.

Needless to say, the speed trap was an economic boon.  Within a month of installing the cameras, the Village issued 6,600 tickets—more than three times its population.  But the negative fallout was almost immediate: Facebook pages encouraging a boycott; a lawsuit issued in part by a pastor whose attendance plummeted after more than half of the parishioners received tickets on a Sunday after Mass; decreased patronage by the local businesses; increasing hardship by the already low-income population that has also received these citations; the resignation of four councilmembers and push for the Mayor to resign.  A county judge has labeled the practice as a “scam”—an initiative that fosters more ill-will toward law enforcement than it does at promoting a culture of improved road safety.  If litigation succeeds in making Elmwood Place pay back all the fines collected plus legal costs, the Village will suffer greater hardship than it ever experienced before the installation of the cameras.  Meanwhile, continued implementation of the speed monitoring may eventually kill off long-standing businesses due to diminishing patronage.

Interestingly, none of the articles regarding the Elmwood Place controversy show any awareness that this situation has reared its head in Ohio in the past—repeatedly.  Are the parties involved in litigation at Elmwood Place aware of the long-brewing trouble in Linndale and New Rome?  The national attitudes toward speed cameras or other speed traps seem bipolar.  According to the Yahoo article, even as 12 states have banned speed cameras and nine have banned red-light cameras, overall use has increased fivefold in the past decade—and is growing.  At the same time, Ohio seems to be retreating from its practice of monitoring motorists.  Aside from the Assistant AG’s clampdown on Linndale mentioned earlier, a bill passed 61-32 in late June by the Ohio House proposes to outlaw both speeding and red-light camera monitoring.  During the hearing for the bill(which showed little partisan divide), defenders of cameras argue that overwhelming evidence shows that they do improve safety.  Most law enforcement supports the cameras; so do private citizens who have lost family members to other people’s reckless driving. Meanwhile, the opponents of these cameras nearly always recalled the apparent history of moneymaking schemes; one Democratic representative evoked Elmwood Place as evidence of corruption, specifically referencing how 40% of the proceeds collected for tickets go directly to an out-of-state private company whose primary profit motive encourages it to issue as many tickets as possible.

While these scenarios might finally have reached the boiling point in Ohio to impel more statewide unity in traffic safety enforcement, the overall approach to camera monitoring is likely to remain fragmented at the national level.  One might suspect that the international controversy regarding Edward Snowden’s revelations of National Security Agency’s intensive monitoring of private citizens might provoke further backlash, but at this point no evidence suggests that state lawmakers are correlating the Snowden affair with traffic cameras.  By and large, complaints against speed traps have little to do with privacy invasions—after all, the monitoring virtually always takes pace on public ROWs—but the interest of public roadside safety may have helped spawn the proliferation of surveillance infrastructure across a variety of other settings, both public and private.  Ohio may be icing the sting from this practice a bit more vigorously than most other states, but the persistent resurfacing of this issue suggests that the real ethical questioning at a national or even global level has yet to come.

3 thoughts on “Speed surveillance scamming spreads statewide.

  1. Jeffrey Jakucyk

    It’s unfortunate when a municipality is driven to such tactics due to budgetary concerns, especially when it’s ostensibly to fix traffic problems that are engineering and land-use based.

    I drive and bike through Elmwood Place semi-regularly, and it’s actually surprising that speeding would be a problem there, specifically on Vine Street which is the main drag through town. It’s a typical Cincinnati arterial street, with an approximately 40 foot pavement cross section. There’s parking on both sides so it leaves one lane in each direction that’s generous, but not overly wide.

    What’s interesting in this case is that Vine Street in Elmwood Place is pretty well built up with 2-3 story buildings right up on the sidewalk, and a fair number of street trees. With the on-street parking, it definitely doesn’t send a message that this is a place to drive fast. Google Street View

    Of course, it’s a trap because the speed limit is set to 25 mph, and they gave tickets for going just 4-5 mph over the limit. To the south in St. Bernard the limit is 35 and the street is mostly devoid of buildings, parking, or anything to slow you down. To the north in Cincinnati’s Carthage neighborhood it’s mostly small-lot houses with a lot of street parking, so the speed limit there is 30.

    Elmwood Place set up cameras basically right at their borders with St. Bernard and Cincinnati, with their “warning” signs almost right in front of the cameras, so you had little time to react. I suspect they issued most tickets to people driving north from St. Bernard.

    Had Elmwood Place not needed to supplement their coffers with ticket revenue, what could they do to fix speeding then, since the built environment is already pretty much what you want it to be to communicate slow speed? Curb bump-outs would probably help, but I suspect there’d be push back because then you can’t navigate around vehicles waiting to turn left. Maybe mid-block bump-outs? They seem able to spare a few spots since the street is never parked full. Still, it’s mostly there already.

    I bring this up because another Cincinnati suburb was a notorious speed trap, though not due to fiscal issues but because of poor road design. Terrace Park on the east side of town would routinely ticket motorists where the speed limit drops from 55 mph down to 40 and then to 35 on Wooster Pike. It’s a case of late 1930s engineering, where the road was built with an unchanged cross-section despite going from a mostly rural area along the Little Miami River into the suburban neighborhood of Terrace Park.

    The difference between Terrace Park and Elmwood Place is that in Terrace Park they have significantly changed the design of Wooster Pike to slow down vehicles. The original cross-section was first reduced from two lanes each way to one lane each way and a center turn lane by ODOT a few years ago. Upon entering Terrace Park, they also added landscaped medians with lights and they built curbs and new sidewalks (there’s actually sidewalks in the original construction but they’ve mostly fallen apart or been buried). So even though the overall width hasn’t changed and remains unbroken from the 55 mph rural section to the 35 mph suburban section, the curbs and islands do an excellent job of slowing traffic.

    Rural Wooster Pike

    Wooster Pike in Terrace Park

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  2. AmericanDirt

    Thanks for the comment and clarification, Jeffrey. If I haven’t been to a location, I usually try to familiarize myself with it (however superficially). It definitely fits all the definitions of an old inner-ring suburb.

    But you seem to have pinned it down–distinguishing Elmwood Place’s approach from the more honest methods of speed management. It’s funny how much it’s like a whack-a-mole in Ohio; the issue keeps popping up somewhere new. While it appears the state is finally stepping in, it’s unclear whether anything will happen before the Elmwood Place litigation reaches a settlement.

    Sounds like Terrace Park is another example of street beautification carefully fused with traffic calming. In places where traffic calming is controversial, sometimes the best way to introduce it is to use streetscape improvements as a frame of reference. Of course, we have plenty of places where even streetscape improvements are controversial.

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