An Interview with Sykesville’s Chief of Police, John Williams
Sykesville’s considering an ordinance that would allow the use of speed cameras in the town. Some people say it’s all about money. Police Chief John Williams says it’s all about safety. He’ll present his case to the public in two town council meetings. We interviewed him in his office.
How many speed cameras would you use?
We’re looking at a portable unit that allows you to move it from location to location, depending on what impact you’re having.
When can you use it? Does it work in the dark?
Yes, it works in the dark, but due to the legislation, there are restrictions on hours of operation from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. because of school.
So it’s all related to schools?
Yes, first the town has to have an ordinance in place authorizing the use of these devices within our community for speed enforcement. Then you also need to designate the school zones, which is the area that’s in a half-mile radius surrounding that particular school. We’re looking at three school locations. The law allows for a half-mile radius from those locations, and when you have a town that’s 1.6 square miles, it basically takes in just about the whole town.
So how do you set it up?
If the town decides to go forward, we’ll put out a request for proposal with the specs that we want, put it out to bid, and find a vendor that meets our needs. The logistic end of it, setting it up, placement – that will be done by the vendor. The operation and overseeing of the operation will come under the direct control of the police department.
Do you only want one?
Well, initially...certainly we’ll have to see what flexibility we need to have an impact on speed.
Would the town actually buy it?
So if you don’t buy it, how do the vendors make their money? Are you talking about a $40 ticket and the vendor gets $15?
A lot of that will be spelled out in the contract. It should never be dictated in a per-citation fashion. It has to be understood that it’s for the safety aspect of it, not how many tickets you can generate. The equipment is calibrated; it is certified. I or a member of my staff would check on the operation of the device daily.
So will you have software that lets you bring up statistics and see who’s getting tickets, that sort of thing?
Yes. The overall review of whether a vehicle gets cited or doesn’t get cited rests with the police department. Every violation notice will be sent here through the computer, and we authorize the issue of the citation. We’ll have to review them and determine that the tag is legible, that there’s a clear indication the vehicle broke the two radar points, that there wasn’t any other vehicular interference. There’s a lot of things, and there’s training that the vendor will provide to us leading up to implementing the program and getting it up and running.
The first thirty days, it’s a warning type thing. It takes two photographs of the vehicle breaking the beam, and it takes a photograph of the rear of the vehicle, and these three photographs are what comes up on our screen for review.
If someone wants to fight it, what can they do?
This is another issue that has to be addressed. It’s in place currently in Prince Georges and Montgomery counties. These violations go on a civil or municipal citation. We will have to sit down with the district court and determine what the citation will look like, an estimate of how many tickets may be brought before the judge and describe what our purpose is in deploying these devices. These are things that really have to be worked out once the town decides we’re going to go this way.
Can you contest it? I guess it’s probably not very easy to get out of one of these tickets, is it?
No. The instrument leaves very little to chance. They’re calibrated; they’re certified. In Montgomery county, they find that historically for 3% of the citations issued, someone requests to contest them, to have a hearing at the district court level, but they found that even those who requested a hearing, of those 3%, only 1.5% normally showed.
If a person gets a citation, either they can pay it and send it in, or they can check a block requesting a trial to contest the charge. Then they’ll be issued a court date, and the officer who is in charge of the program and the equipment will have a court date to go in and testify that the machine was operating properly, that it was checked on that date and provide the court this evidence if necessary.
So what about the idea that it’s strictly a revenue generator?
Yes, it’s going to generate revenue, but in the perfect world, if it creates voluntary compliance with our speed laws, no citations are going to be issued and subsequently it’s not a revenue generating issue.
What about the vendor’s perspective? If it stops generating revenue, what happens then?
One thing that is recommended is that you make sure you enter into a termination agreement with the vendor. Once we get the specs and put that proposal request out and get input from our town attorney, we’ll sit down with the vendor and make sure we iron everything out.
Is it conceivable that it doesn’t generate enough revenue for the vendor to make it worth their while?
Sure, absolutely. And what I wanted to mention with the revenue end of this is that those costs associated with the operation above and beyond the ten percent that is allowed by law to go back to the jurisdiction for public safety enhancement, the cost of the officer’s time, the time in court, the printing of the citations, any hardware, software, signage that needs to be posted throughout the community warning the people, the advertising that we use to make the community aware of where these sites are, those operating costs are absorbed outside the ten percent.
A lot of people say this is all about the money, so getting back to that, first of all whose idea was it? Did the council come to you and say, “We need more money, how about speed cameras?”
No, they didn’t. It was my idea. I took it to the council.
Why can’t you achieve what you want with conventional methods?
Last year our officers worked over 180 radar assignments. One hundred and eighty. That’s a lot. They’ll go out to a target area, set up, and work radar, but when you look at the volume, if I had two officers to send out and they did nothing but work radar 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, they wouldn’t begin to scratch the surface, when you look at the survey we did and see the number of cars in violation of the speed limit.
And you have to remember, for an officer working radar, they have to stop the car, have a verbal interaction; some cases these are adversarial, so you’re adding to the time factor. You have to issue tickets; some cases, they refuse to sign the tickets and are subject to incarceration. If you take them into custody, then you have to take them to Westminster, the whole nine yards.
When you look at just the sheer numbers of people that are in violation of the speed laws, the greatest impact is going to be through this technology.
Where would you use them?
Three target areas have come to my attention. Obrecht Road, Springfield Avenue and Sandosky Road. My officers work the area at Sandosky and College quite a bit. We’ve got the Montessori school at the top of the hill. That location is a school bus stop, and I’ve had numerous complaints from the parents in reference to speeding motorists.
In the morning, unfortunately, people will try to avoid some of the traffic on Route 32 and try to cut through town.
But you can only cover one of these areas at a time, right?
Initially. Depending on what success we have with this.
Who do you think is usually doing the speeding?
Mostly the residents of the town. On Obrecht Road, it’s a combination. If something happens on Route 97, our community becomes the cut-through. You also have daily commuter traffic on Obrecht, and unfortunately they’re coming through our community at the same time that our kids are going to school.
In Rockville, they conducted a twenty-month study of speed camera effectiveness, and the average speed of vehicles decreased by 12%, the number of collisions within a half-mile radius of the speed cameras decreased by 35%. When you look at the numbers, and that’s the thing I keep throwing out to people that really want to question it, the data is there, and the numbers speak for themselves.
You can support it, you can not like it, you can think it’s another means of government to tax or generate revenue, but you can’t argue with the numbers. It slows people down, it changes behavior, it reduces crashes.
With the 12 mph cushion, aren’t you effectively enforcing a 37 mph speed limit?
Okay, but do you think that's a safe speed limit for these roads?
Well, here again, I would like to see compliance with the lower speeds. The slower the speeds, the greater the chance you have of surviving a crash. That’s the bottom line. The National Highway Safety Administration says “the cost to society for speed-related crashes exceeds 40.4 billion dollars each year.”
When your police are out there, say on Obrecht, are they working with a 12-mph tolerance?
Normally, if you write somebody up for one or two miles over the limit, and you end up going before a judge, you’re going to lose all credibility. You want to be reasonable. I was surprised the survey said most people feel comfortable driving seven or eight over the speed limit, but I find that most people really believe there is a ten-mile-an-hour cushion.
So the impetus for this wasn’t that speeding complaints have recently gone up, but that now state law allows it?
Sure. Mr. Candland (the town’s manager) has been here a long time, I’m in my ninth year, and this has always been the number one concern of our community. In most small towns, if you pull up the national data, you’ll find that’s usually the number one concern.
Would there be a big community education effort?
There has to, by law. Some of the revenue will be used for an aggressive educational campaign. It’ll be posted on the website, maybe advertising, our newsletter.
The focus, here again is to try to get compliance, to try to change behavior. One thing that was really interesting about the Montgomery County study is that from May 2007 to June 2009 approximately two-thirds of speed camera citations were issued for vehicles that received one citation during that period. Only 2% of the vehicles received more than five citations. People learn.
And in the Montgomery County survey, 57% said speed cameras caused them to reduce their speed on residential streets. After eighteen months, 72% say their speeds were reduced. It resulted in a behavior change. Let me tell you, I drive around Montgomery County, and when you see those signs, you’re going to put on the brakes.
Like it or not, it does create a safer environment for people.
Who gets the ticket?
The owner of the vehicle. Two exceptions are if you can prove that it’s stolen or if you can prove someone else is the driver of the car, then they’ll have to pay the ticket.
So what if this doesn’t happen? No speed cameras. What then?
Back to the conventional way. Send a little Dutch boy down to the dam, try to stick a finger in one hole as the water surrounds us. That’s basically what we’ve been doing.
In the short term there’s the chance that it could make some good money. What would you do with the money? What needs would you like to see filled?
The money has to be spent for public safety, everything from replacing police cars to equipment. Sidewalks. Pedestrian paths. One thing people have asked about is lighting, street lights, lighting in our parks.
In Gaithersburg they installed sidewalks, traffic-calming measures. We could continue to address the speed problem. It goes back to the ultimate goal, which is slowing people down.
What happens if you don’t pay?
They can suspend or refuse to reregister your vehicle.
Do you get emails on the issue? Are they polite?
Sure. They run the gamut. Some emails say “We’re so glad you’re doing this” and then there’s the one that says “What are you thinking… how can you do this?”
In one email they say how much they love it here, and three quarters of the way through, they mention having a teenage driver and then (they say), if you allow this to go on, we have no other course but to leave. They feel that their child either has a history or cannot operate a motor vehicle within the speed limits in our community, and it’s going to cost them money.
You know it’s everything from “What took you so long” to “ You know we live in the area, we’ve always known it was a problem; we’ve never seen a police car parked here.”
It’s interesting, and I hope that those that have expressed concern over the problem make it to these meetings and have their voices heard. Unfortunately, in many of these situations, you hear from the naysayers. The squeaky wheel gets the grease.
What else is involved in getting this going?
It’s a long drawn-out process. We’re taking baby steps. We started this in October, we’re just getting the ordinance to the public for the public hearing. We’ve got two scheduled hearings. The first one is January 25 at 7pm. The second one will be on February 8 at 7pm. I don’t know if the town would make a decision then.
Even if it would pass, before we could get it up and implemented, it would be months. We’ve got to find a vendor, and we certainly have to sit down with the courts to make sure that everybody is on the same page and that we meet whatever needs they require. It’s not something that they would deny. It’s state law. It’s a matter of structuring, figuring out how much of their court time it’ll take, what the charging documents will look like, and so on.