That smell? It's coming from Harlem Ave., and Springfield

Opinion

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By Brett McNeil

Columnist

Suburban red-light camera revenues now far outpace Chicago's, and the most rapacious cameras in all of Illinois are operated by the same private company that has turned Harlem Avenue locally into a cash cow. We know this thanks to a joint reporting project last month between the Sun-Times and ABC-7 that was itself built on reporting Bob Uphues and I did earlier this year for Wednesday Journal. 

That SafeSpeed LLC operates in eight of the top-10 heaviest ticket-issuing suburbs will come as no surprise to anyone who has received one of the tens of thousands of red-light camera citations issued along Harlem Avenue in the last few years. 

As we suggested and recent stories support, the intersection at Harlem and Cermak, where Berwyn and North Riverside compete for red-light camera revenues, is the most lucrative crossroads in the state. All four corners are monitored by SafeSpeed cameras. 

River Forest just missed the top-10 cut, but 11th isn't bad. Especially when the village has just two cameras. 

As you likely know by now, River Forest, like all of SafeSpeed's municipal enablers, gets 60 cents of each dollar collected on those $100 tickets. The privately run company gets the rest. Based on Sun-Times numbers, that works out to almost $30 million in SafeSpeed earnings between 2014 and 2016 from more than $70 million in ticket revenues. 

Almost every one of those tickets were issued for right-turn violations, which traffic experts do not consider a significant roadway hazard. 

So thousands of drivers are left with a very keen sense that something is rotten in village halls across northern Illinois and is especially putrid in Springfield, where the company's truest friends roost in nests feathered with SafeSpeed cash. 

The Sun-Times/ABC-7 stories do leave a couple unanswered questions in their wake. 

A SafeSpeed spokeswoman claims COO Chris Lai "misspoke" in comments to reporters regarding his firm's origin story. What other facts does the firm fail to get straight?

During visits to recent adjudication hearings in Melrose Park and Berwyn, reporters easily identified multiple motorists whose tickets had been dismissed when video evidence clearly showed no ticket was warranted. Yet these tickets were most definitely issued, passing muster during an initial review at SafeSpeed's offices and again following a review by a local cop. 

Asked about improper ticketing, Lai said these instances represent a "very, very small" number of citations referred by the company for ticketing. Perhaps. The actual number is punishingly difficult for an outsider to determine, as Lai surely knows. 

Establishing those figures would require manual review of each and every one of the alleged violations SafeSpeed refers for ticketing. In River Forest alone, that would require viewing something like 75,000 video clips from 2014 to 2016. 

But we don't need to review all those videos to know SafeSpeed is making bad or awfully borderline referrals. For that, we have the word of River Forest Village Administrator Eric Palm, who last year told me that village police weed out 50 percent of SafeSpeed's referrals before issuing a red-light camera citation. His point was that River Forest police are diligent in issuing only good tickets. But what does that error rate suggest about SafeSpeed and its practices? 

Perhaps there is a simple reason the company dominates suburban ticket-writing and why reporters can literally walk into any adjudication hearing room and find people with demonstrably bad tickets. 

Good for River Forest if they are carefully fact-checking the SafeSpeed data dumps, but what about less diligent communities where junk or questionable referrals simply become improperly issued tickets? 

How many motorists bother to contest them, even for an unwarranted citation, when to do so costs more in time and aggravation than the $100 ticket? Our numbers showed that in River Forest, it was less than 10 percent. 

SafeSpeed and the towns that financially benefit from this form of policing-for-profit claim these cameras are all about safety. If that's true, why are SafeSpeed's sales pitches about maximizing ticket revenues, and why are their contracts built on revenue sharing -- a practice that has been outlawed in other states.

As these contracts are written, isn't SafeSpeed incentivized to maximize the number of alleged infractions the company refers to police for ticketing? Lai told reporters he and his colleagues are "very, very proud" of their work, which is "better" and "more effective" than competitors. With an error rate of 50 percent in River Forest, I wonder how Lai defines "better" and "more effective."

Maybe something like, 40 percent of $70 million? 

Please send comments and tips to brett@oakpark.com.

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Bill Kopper from Oak Park  

Posted: June 8th, 2017 11:26 AM

Let's address the real problem. Our villages continue to plan for fines in order to meet expenses in the General Fund. Instead of honestly taxing us (or reducing expenses!) the villages set up the random crap shoot of parking and traffic fines to fund their budgets. In FY 17 Oak Park budgeted about 2.6M of revenue to come from "fines." That's 4% or so of General Fund revenue. Thin about that when you pay the $70 for leaving you car on the street overnight.

Terry Stanton  

Posted: June 8th, 2017 8:24 AM

What is most bothersome is that the elected officials of NR, Berwyn, and River Forest aren't embarrassed about shaking down their own taxpaying residents with cameras that don't enhance safety and that enrich a sleazy vendor. All because it makes their budgeting job easier. Every time WJ runs one of these stories, it should ask every RF board member to justify this ongoing scheme.

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