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:
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.