Chicago nearly doubles review of red light camera tickets

Newspaper investigation found suspicious spikes throughout city

Aug. 04--Mayor Rahm Emanuel's administration has nearly doubled to 16,000 the number of red light camera tickets now eligible for review after a Tribune investigation that found suspicious ticket spikes throughout Chicago, but city officials continue to sidestep broader questions about the system's operation.

In the two weeks since the investigation was published, the mayor and his transportation chief, Rebekah Scheinfeld, have declined to address the issue of the fundamental soundness of a program prone to wild swings in ticketing that officials still cannot explain.

Instead, they are increasing their focus on whether drivers broke the law at a dozen intersections cited by the Tribune as the strongest examples of the problems. City Hall critics say the administration's attention on individual cases is misplaced, and they are calling for a broader look at the fairness of a program that has raised nearly half a billion dollars for Chicago in $100 increments.

"It looks to me like they are going to try to get through this by going back and looking at a few tickets without taking responsibility for their own lack of oversight at the highest levels," said Ald. Scott Waguespack, 32nd, an outspoken Emanuel critic who is among 19 aldermen calling for City Council hearings to investigate.

"Well, the first thing they need to do? Acknowledge they have a serious problem," Waguespack said. "And to me, the fact that they haven't is a serious problem in itself."

In a brief interview Friday, Scheinfeld said that while the city is focused on the review process at the dozen intersections most prominently featured in the Tribune report, her staff is working with the city's inspector general to find the causes of the spikes.

"We are taking this very seriously," Scheinfeld said in her first interview since the story broke July 18. "If we find evidence that points to inconsistent enforcement, then we will be addressing those situations appropriately. At this time we are not aware of any specific evidence of the kinds of inconsistent enforcement you are talking about."

Scheinfeld would not commit to refunds in those cases.

"I think it would be unfair to speculate on what we would do," she said. "But we want to make sure we maintain the public's confidence in the red light camera program.

"Our first priority is to look at the 12 that got the most attention. But we are looking at all of them. The 16,000 is still just for those 12 locations, but we are being very inclusive."

On Thursday, city officials told the Tribune that they have broadened the number of letters being sent to ticketed motorists eligible for a review from the 9,000 Emanuel announced to 16,000, which they have identified from the dozen intersections featured in the Tribune report.

They have also reached out to Redflex Traffic Systems Inc., the camera company Emanuel fired last year amid bribery allegations, and asked for its help retrieving video evidence long since discarded by the city. According to the administration, the company was able to provide the videos in all 16,000 cases now eligible for review.

In an email response Thursday to a series of Tribune questions, the administration said it is "looking at all potential causes of these anomalies" and that it has no evidence "that there was any purposeful intent to alter the methods of enforcement at a particular intersection."

A 10-month Tribune investigation that analyzed more than 4 million automated red light camera citations issued since 2007 found that thousands of drivers got tickets during dozens of unexplained spikes throughout the city. More than 13,000 tickets were issued during the 12 most dramatic spikes.

Cameras that normally tagged only several cars a day suddenly and temporarily shot up to as many as 56 per day. The duration of yellow lights -- a critical factor in ticketing -- varied widely in some cases. At some of the spikes, the rates of ticket appeals also rocketed up.

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