- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 6, 2009

The call came in at 8:30 a.m.

Montgomery County police arrived at the Germantown crime scene near the intersection of Wisteria Drive and Misty Meadow Terrace to find a mess of green and yellow spray paint. Underneath it all, one of the department’s 60-some speed cameras was temporarily blinded.

Taunting the authorities was a painted smiley face staring out from the padlocked steel box that protects the camera’s computer equipment.

The strong feelings elicited by the cameras, which have taken the form of vandalism in more than two dozen cases in Montgomery County, are something other jurisdictions will likely face in coming weeks as they decide whether to place cameras on their own roadsides.

Montgomery County is currently the only Maryland county authorized to use speed cameras, but a state law that takes effect Oct. 1 authorizes cities and other counties to deploy the devices.

The Baltimore City Council passed legislation in August authorizing cameras to begin operation when the statewide law goes into effect.

Baltimore County will vote on whether to authorize cameras at a county council session Tuesday.

In the D.C. suburbs, the town of New Carrollton in Prince George’s County has approved cameras. Berwyn Heights will take up the issue next week, and District Heights officials are also interested in using cameras, as is the city of Frederick. The town of Cheverly is expected to pass its own legislation in October, though it’s not clear when or if cameras would be put on the streets.

“It won’t hurt to have the legislation on the books, but we may or may not use it,” said Cheverly’s town administrator, David Warrington. “It’s an umbrella in the trunk - if it rains, you have it.”

The town will test out one mobile camera, and its location will be updated daily on the town’s Web site, he said.

Vandalism, he said, “is always an issue,” but because the technology will be used in a limited manner, he doesn’t foresee trouble.

“Ours is going to be mobile in a trailer and moved by police daily, so whether that will make a difference, we’ll find out,” he said.

In Montgomery County, vandals have defaced automated speed cameras 27 times since they were first installed in 2007, according to police reports obtained by The Washington Times through the Freedom of Information Act.

Black spray paint is the weapon of choice, though yellow paint pellets are also popular. Vandals scratch glass lenses and pry open boxes to steal sensitive - and expensive - computer components, including modems, Web routers and wires.

Historically, county police have not liked to discuss the camera attacks for fear of putting the idea into people’s heads, said Lt. Paul Starks, a department spokesman.

The county has recorded 16 cases of spray-paint vandalism. Three times cameras have been pried open to expose or steal the components, and twice camera lenses have been intentionally scratched. Twice, cameras were shot with yellow paintballs, and one camera had its lens painted over with black nail polish. The remaining cases include various scratches and dents to camera poles.

Police say they know of no connections among the cases. According to the reports, camera technicians are usually the people discovering the damage.

Damage to the cameras range from $150 per painted camera lens to $10,000 in broken and stolen internal parts. Crimes committed include larceny, damage to public and business property, vandalism and graffiti.

The county now has 60-some fixed speed cameras and six mobile cameras.

Under the new state law, which Gov. Martin O’Malley signed in May, fines cannot exceed $40. Speeders can only be cited if they’re going at least 12 miles per hour over the speed limit. The cameras only can be placed within highway work zones or within a half-mile radius of school areas. The school cameras only can be turned on from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday.

A 30-day notice is required before tickets can be issued. The cameras also cannot be used on major bridges and tunnels, and signs must be posted to give drivers “adequate notice,” according to the Maryland Department of Transportation.

The Montgomery County police reports show Wilson Lane in Bethesda and Darnestown Road near Rockville are popular locations for the vandals. The year’s warmest months, March through July, were the most popular for camera vandalism. The most recent defacing occurred Aug. 8 when the internal components of a camera on Fisher Avenue in Poolesville were removed.

Three cameras were spray painted on July 24 alone.

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