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Lingering concerns on D.C. speed cameras find deaf ear
The efforts of a D.C. police sergeant to force a refund of $1.8 million in allegedly invalid speed-camera tickets represent just one aspect of what he says is ailing the District's automated speed-enforcement program.
But so far, according to Metropolitan Police Department Sgt. Mark Robinson, police officials and city leaders have turned a deaf ear to his concerns, despite their being sustained and his designation as a whistleblower.
After he successfully challenged his own citation, Sgt. Robinson's charges this week targeting 14,000 defective speed-camera tickets from the Third Street Tunnel drew widespread attention from the public, consumer advocates and the media, yet D.C. officials have stayed mum about these and other concerns long expressed by the 22-year department veteran.
And documents obtained by The Washington Times from inside the program, which is run by civilian Lisa Sutter, show that defective tunnel tickets are merely the latest sign of dysfunction and attempts to obscure it by the program, which many see as a cash cow more than a public-safety unit.
In a July letter to D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, Sgt. Robinson complained of a failure to incorporate "minimum performance requirements" such as secondary speed verification measures in the deployment of the District's portable speed units. In 2011, from Dec. 8 to 16, he wrote, D.C. police directed Ms. Sutter to turn off the units and bring them into compliance with such requirements.
Although her unit oversaw the painting of stripes on the road to validate vehicle speed recorded by the cameras, and changed some tickets to warnings, more than 100,000 citations were issued that should have been rescinded, Sgt. Robinson wrote.
Internal emails, however, show these issues were handled more with an eye toward damage control than program integrity.
Sgt. Robinson's supervisor at the time, Lt. Kervin Johnson, proposed in an email to Ms. Sutter on Dec. 8, 2011, that they "get together" to discuss the concerns raised by Sgt. Robinson.
"Tickets w/fines that have been issued could potentially come under scrutiny by someone versed in the field of photo enforcement, the media or maybe even AAA," he wrote. "A suggestion was made to kill all of the tickets and request a rescind on tickets that have already been issued."
The problem, Lt. Johnson continued, is that D.C. police may have "set a precedent" with previous cameras "that we may have stopped with the [portable speed units] without advising the public." He added, "I guess the concern is that we keep the understanding that this type of speed enforcement is not revenue based but was put into place to save lives and change the public's driving behavior. I was just sent a [Freedom of Information Act] request that looks as if the requestor may be attempting to show that [D.C. police are] taking two different approaches when it comes to how we operate unattended speed enforcement sites."
Indeed, Sgt. Robinson, one of the principal radar instructors since the inception of the program, is versed in the field and, he says, was urging the program to place ethics and integrity over profit. But he also had been voicing other concerns since 2009, and eventually was transferred from the program, a move D.C. police say was the result of it being "civilianized."
Back then, Sgt. Robinson discovered that Ms. Sutter arranged without approval the donation of $25,000 to a nonprofit program called Drive-to-Survive. When forced to refund the money, she took further inappropriate action, he said, and the matter was referred to the Internal Affairs Division, which sustained the complaint.
Mr. Mendelson, then chairman of the Judiciary Committee, urged D.C. Inspector General Charles J. Willoughby to regard Sgt. Robinson as a whistleblower and take "corrective and/or disciplinary action," according to a letter obtained by The Times. Yet Mr. Willoughby's office concluded the transfer-of-funds issue was "not worth their time," and at a recent council hearing in which Sgt. Robinson testified, Mr. Mendelson dismissed the matter by saying, "I've done all I can do."
In response to questions this week from The Times, Denise Tolliver, chief of staff to Mr. Mendelson, said, "Phil no longer oversees the Committee on Judiciary, your requests should now go to [D.C. Council member Tommy Wells]."
Mr. Wells, who said he is interested in the program but had not reviewed recent news articles on the subject, did not respond to questions. D.C. police officials said they would not respond without a FOIA request.
Such reticence by the police department and the city's elected officials is troubling, said Steven N. Berk, managing editor of The Corporate Observer, a consumer rights publication produced by practicing attorneys.
"Sgt. Mark Robinson's experience mirrors what many local whistleblowers are rewarded with for their honesty: retaliation," Mr. Berk wrote. "Local governments affect people more directly and yet those, such as Sgt. Robinson, who try to help prevent 'waste, fraud and illegal conduct,' as the D.C. Ethics Manual states, are often demoted or lose their jobs altogether.
"Hats off to Sgt. Robinson for putting up with D.C.'s retaliatory reassignment and persisting in his quest to expose the [program's] mismanagement."
© Copyright 2013 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
About the Author
Jeffrey Anderson is an investigative reporter for The Washington Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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