11 Investigates: Handheld speed cameras

11 Investigates: Handheld speed cameras

TOLEDO (WTOL) - As Toledo police Officer George Roush slid into position on a hill overlooking I-475 near the intersection of Douglas Road and Langenderfer Drive, a man slowly drove by and shouted at him and gestured angrily out his window.

It’s not the first time he’s been yelled at while operating one of the city’s handheld speed cameras.

His supervisor, Sgt. Tim Hanus, says traffic officers have been subjected to a barrage of threats on social media, some of the posts encouraged people to throw items at the officers if they saw them beside roadways.

“You have to understand that when you are holding that speed camera, you often can’t see what’s going on side to side and behind them. It’s safety, so that’s why they are on the overpass rather than the expressway,” Hanus says.

11 Investigates: Handheld speed cameras

Tickets from handheld cameras are a hot-button topic in Toledo. Many residents detest them, calling them a money grab. Through a public records request, WTOL was able to examine the nearly 67,000 tickets sent to drivers from Jan. 1, 2018, through Oct. 31.

The tickets are not like a typical citation issued by a state trooper that can vary in cost and can result in points on your license. A handheld camera ticket is a civic citation that is $120 – no matter how fast the driver is going. The ticket is not reported to insurance companies and does not result in points. There is a $25 late fee if action – payment or appeal - is not taken within 21 days. After 91 days, the case is sent to collections.

“Your insurance company never finds out about it, so rates don’t go up,” Hanus says. “I think that’s a fair and reasonable exchange for what people might say is giving up the chance to talk themselves out of the ticket with the officer.”

But there is still a chance to appeal the ticket to an administrative officer and uniformed officers during periodic hearings inside a One Government Center conference room. On a recent Thursday afternoon, dozens of people filled the room. They were called to a table one at a time, shown a picture of where their car was, and offered the chance to explain why they were speeding.

For Kevin Mourey, he was ticketed while heading south from Michigan to Kentucky. However, his ticket stated that he was northbound on I-75, an obvious mistake by the officer. The error was enough for the administrative officer to waive the fine.

“They were polite. When they realized that there was a little bit of falsification, everyone was like, ‘nope, you are not wrong,’” Mourey says.

But is the program a money grab? There is no denying the fact that it is a big money-maker for the city. In 2018, it led to nearly $8 million in revenue. During the 20 minutes that WTOL was watching Roush, he registered 15 tickets – or $1,800 in potential revenue.

But years ago, then-Gov. John Kasich began draining funds from the Local Government Fund, and Toledo was forced to plug a nearly $15 million hole in lost revenue.

Kasich “said you’ll have to find a way to make that money yourself, and we have,” Hanus says. “Along with that money coming in, we’re making the streets safer, so it’s a win-win for everybody.”

He has the numbers to support his statement about safety. Since handheld cameras were first used in 2017, traffic accidents have fallen nearly 10 percent in Toledo. Even one ticket can have a ripple effect across the community. Drivers begin driving more slowly in areas that are known as camera zones.

“When that person gets a ticket, it’s not just that person – it’s the 40, 50, 60 people they tell getting the ticket. You know they are going to talk about it. They are going to tell their friend, their relative,” Hanus says.

Back on the hill, Roush, a longtime traffic cop, shows off his speed-estimation skills. “That one is 66.” The car was actually traveling 67 miles per hour, according to the camera. But he nails the next two estimates.

Minutes later, the camera registers a car speeding past at 77 mph. The driver will have a ticket show up in the mail in about two weeks.

“When I was doing traffic stops, I’d have to get up to 120 mph to catch them before they hit the Sylvania line. That’s dangerous,” he says, jabbing his thumb up toward his cruiser. “That’s an old car that’s barely holding together. It has 150,000 miles on it.”

Some cars would never have been caught during a traffic stop.

At the station, there is a “trophy” collection of sorts that Roush and the sergeant spread out on a table. There are screen shots of all the cars that have been caught on camera going at least 100 miles per hour. The top speed was recorded by a Corvette going 126. It would be absolutely impossible for a stationary police car to get up to speed to nail that driver. The camera got him, and probably the one behind him trying to keep pace.

Some municipalities around the country have gained a reputation for targeting out-of-state drivers who are not likely to return to fight the ticket. The purpose of the public records request by WTOL was to see if there was evidence of Toledo doing that. Nothing stuck out.

Ohio drivers absorbed 44,929 of the 66,902 tickets. Michigan followed with 14,750 tickets, then Indiana at 905, Pennsylvania at 670, and Florida at 651 tickets. Every state had a driver receive a ticket – with the exception of South Dakota. There were five from Alaska, two from Hawaii, and one driver from Wyoming.

Roush showed a reporter that it was impossible to identify the plate of a state through the viewfinder before briefly locking onto the plate.

But no matter what the police do, or the reasons they give, some residents will still believe they were targeted unfairly. It is, however, impossible to say that some aren’t unjustly ticketed.

Jeanne Schumacher believed she was in a 60, when, in fact, she was in a 50-mph construction zone.

“They are impersonal. They are just a cash cow,” she says. “My biggest beef is you live on residential streets that have children running everywhere and people going 50 down my street. You try to get a policeman on my street, and they won’t do it. To me, that’s more important than catching somebody on an interstate going 11 miles per hour over.”

But to Sergeant Hanus and Officer Roush, the fact is that if you are breaking the law, you are breaking the law. And the police aren’t hiding to catch you.

“We have no reason to hide from the public,” Hanus says. “They know we are there. We would love for them to slow down.”

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