- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Simmering resentment against traffic cameras is being expressed in acts of civil disobedience in suburban Montgomery County, where vandals are striking back at automated traffic enforcement.

While residents of the neighboring District seem willing to suffer automated red-light and speed cameras in silence, some in Montgomery County have turned to what protesters often refer to as “direct action.”

In the most recent incident, police say an unknown person or people painted over the lenses of two sets of speed cameras on Aug. 1 in the Cabin John area, rendering them useless. The cameras have since been repaired.

The incident resembled a series of attacks in July 2008, in which four speed cameras in the Maryland county were vandalized. However, police say they know of no connection between the cases.

One of last year’s incidents affected a camera on Georgia Avenue in Olney, between King William and Queen Mary drives, but police would not say exactly what happened. Police also refused to disclose the locations of the other three cameras.

In fact, Montgomery County Police don’t like to say very much at all about the camera attacks.

“We don’t want people to get the idea in their heads that this is a good thing to do,” said Lt. Paul Starks, a police spokesman.

At the time of last year’s camera attacks, Lt. Starks told the Gazette community newspapers that other traffic cameras had been vandalized previously, saying that police recorded “about 10 events that involved vandalism at a couple of different locations.”

“Some sites have been hit more than once, but we have tried to set up countermeasures to catch the people doing the vandalizing,” he said.

Not all protests have been destructive.

In May, someone placed bright-red “Speed Camera Ahead!” warning signs near camera locations to alert drivers that they were about to pass a speed camera. While not quite as scandalous as damaging a camera, the protest made a political statement about the county’s 60-some fixed speed cameras and six mobile cameras.

In October, vandals made their marks in at least three other locations painting the phrases “SCAM,” “GREEDY SCAM” and “GOV.SCAM” on county roads in front of fixed speed cameras.

“It doesn’t happen every day,” Lt. Starks said. “These are limited effects of vandalism. The opportunity for somebody to do something is large and the number of events compared to that opportunity is very small.”

Daniel Zubairi, creator of Maryland for Responsible Enforcement, a grass-roots group that was behind a failed effort earlier this summer to put the use of cameras to a statewide vote, said residents are upset about the “Big Brother-esque” cameras nickel-and-diming motorists in an economic climate where every dollar counts.

“We have these things called safe zones where people just slow down for the cameras,” Mr. Zubairi said. “Immediately after the camera, they’ll drive 50 miles per hour to say, ‘Ha-ha-ha-you-can’t-get-me type of thing.’ It’s not promoting safety, it just is promoting speed-camera ticketing.”

Mr. Zubairi, who received warning tickets when the program began, said he has not been cited and that motorists simply slow down for the cameras - defeating their purpose in the first place.

“There are very few people who support these,” he added. “Look at the county police; they don’t even support them.”

The scofflaws include Montgomery County police officers, who have ignored some speed-camera citations and have been observed making obscene gestures at the cameras.

Police often can get the tickets dismissed when the argue they were speeding in the line of duty, but others simply don’t bother to pay or appear in court.

That is irritating to officials such as Montgomery County Council member Phil Andrews, who has said the county “can’t have one set of laws for police officers and another one for the rest of the world.”

Most of the known attacks have been against speed cameras, as opposed to red-light cameras, which also photograph drivers and issue citations in the mail. Until a law enacted by the General Assembly in the last session goes into effect in October, Montgomery County is the only jurisdiction in the state authorized to deploy speed cameras.

In the District, the Metropolitan Police Department says it doesn’t have a problem with vandals targeting their speed cameras. Police spokeswoman Traci Hughes said cameras are checked on a daily basis for damage or disrepair.

Nationwide, the frustration with traffic cameras varies.

A Knoxville, Tenn., judge last week dismissed felony vandalism and reckless endangerment charges against a Tennessee man who in November 2007 took a hunting rifle to a red-light camera that snapped a photo of his speeding vehicle.

The case was dismissed on a technicality. Police found a .30-caliber rifle, whose cartridges matched the empty ones found near the camera, inside the man’s vehicle, but the judge ruled officers did not have sufficient evidence to search the man’s car without a warrant.

Last year, a vandal in Tucson, Ariz., took a less hostile approach and repositioned traffic cameras at collision-prone intersections, turning them slightly to alter their field of observation.

Officials at American Traffic Solutions Inc. - the national vendor responsible for the District’s traffic cameras - said this type of behavior is rare.

“But that’s not to say it never happens,” said spokesman Josh Weiss. “It is rare, it’s only a handful of scenarios when there are 3,000 cameras across the country. That doesn’t excuse illegal behavior. Vandalism is not commonplace - they’re isolated. The majority of the public is in strong support of red-light and speed cameras.”

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