Jewish World Review August 20, 2001/ 1 Elul 5761

Wesley Pruden

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Consumer Reports

How not to measure
saps for a cleaning -- THERE'S a difference between law enforcement and a scam, and the District government may be about to learn the hard way what it is.

D.C.'s finest (irony intended) are no better at traffic management than they are at solving murders or finding lost persons, for which a certain member of Congress may be grateful, but certain other members of Congress are itching to make a citizen's arrest for highway robbery.

Rep. Dick Armey, the leader of the Republican majority in the House, has scheduled hearings on the use of surveillance cameras in the fall and a spokesman for him predicts "a chilly reception" for the makers of these prying abominations.

The first hearings will be about surveillance systems that match faces in the crowd with a data bank of known criminals and evil-doers, such as the cameras manufactured by Visionics Corp. and in use in Tampa and soon to be installed in China. Well, of course. Such cameras are made to order for a totalitarian society. The Chinese will use them to catch Falun Gong members in the act of correct breathing and calisthenics, which in Beijing's eyes makes Falun Gong "an evil cult." But a surveillance camera is a surveillance camera, and a growing public backlash is washing over the District's use of spy cameras to take its citizens to the cleaners.

Two days ago a judge in San Diego, which has been using Lockheed Martin's cameras, said the photographic evidence "appears so untrustworthy and unreliable that it lacks foundation and should not be admitted as evidence."

Judge Ronald Styn of California's Superior Court found that the City of San Diego's policy of awarding Lockheed Martin a fee for every conviction taints Lockheed's role as "a neutral evaluator of the evidence." He will rule Aug. 31 whether to throw out several hundred tickets.

The District's similar program, hatched through police connivance with Lockheed Martin, is planned to entrap 80,000 motorists a year, who will be fleeced of $11 million annually in fines. Entrapped, because the traffic lights can be timed to shorten the span of the yellow sequence, catching motorists in the intersection when the light turns red. Lockheed will photograph the speeders and collect the fines, and pocket $29 for every motorist they catch.

Terrance Gainer, the deputy chief of the Metropolitan Police Department, whose reputation was earlier established when the department wrote the book on how to screw up a missing-persons investigation, is a big fan of the spy cameras. He insists that the District's spy-camera program is about "traffic safety."

But the Metropolitan Police Department's traffic-management record gives the lie to this assertion. Traffic management is all but nil on District streets, as anyone puzzling through the random maze of orange barrels and other construction obstructions can attest. D.C. cops are not even trained in directing traffic, and if speeders are the $11 million problem the cops say they are the chiefs should have done something about them long ago, even if it meant getting patrolmen out of their patrol cars and into the intersections.

It's not just the cops, though Chief Gainer seems determined to make himself the villain with his enthusiastic shilling for the scheme. The D.C. Council authorized the spy cameras, and authorized the unholy alliance of corporate greed (Lockheed Martin) and bumbling bureaucracy (the D.C. government). The council put the motivation for the scam in stark relief when it declined to put points against a driver's record when it authorized the cameras. The council understands that what makes the scheme work is that most motorists will pay the fine rather than deal with the bureaucracy if they won't incur the risk of losing their driver's licenses.

Lockheed Martin expects to catch many of the same speeders more than once. Getting such offenders, good for $29 a pop, off the streets is the last thing Lockheed Martin would want to do. The D.C. Council understands gouging. Lockheed Martin understands unbridled capitalism.

By taking the law-enforcement role from the District government, Lockheed may be asking for expensive litigation. Motorists who persuade a court to throw out the speeding tickets because Lockheed is not a "neutral evaluator of the evidence" should sue Lockheed for false arrest (though they might risk a retaliatory air strike.)

Ralph Inzunza Jr., a San Diego councilman, thinks his city ought to eliminate the cameras. "Whatever we do, we need to have the faith of constituents," he says, "and I'm not sure the residents of San Diego have faith in these cameras." There's a lesson here for that august assemblage of Roman senators our D.C. councilpersons imagine themselves to be. Their constituents deserve more than a mugging.

JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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