NEW ORLEANS — A review of the City of New Orleans' traffic camera program found it broke both city ordinance and state law, ticketing drivers needlessly with no coherent oversight over more than a decade.
The report, issued by the New Orleans Office of Inspector General, is a harsh rebuke of the city's Traffic Camera Safety Program, which uses photos and videos from traffic cameras around the city to cite drivers for red light and speeding violations.
"The traffic camera program in New Orleans had been contentious, with citizens caught in a debate about the extent to which the program prioritized public safety as opposed to revenue generation," the report from Inspector General Derry Harper's office noted.
More citations, more money
The city relies on a contractor, American Traffic Solutions, to set up and control the 98 stationary cameras around New Orleans. Many of these cameras are set up around schools.
The cameras were approved in 2007 by the City Council and began recording in 2008. They are supposed to automatically detect speeding, red light and other violations. If they detect any violations, they record identifying information about the vehicle.
Then, ATS staff review the citations. If the citation passes muster, it's sent over to NOPD where an officer reviews the citation a second time. After the second approval, the citation is sent to the registered owner of the vehicle.
There is a general consensus among researchers that the automated traffic safety systems like the kind New Orleans uses make roads safer.
But according to the report, nobody at the city or from ATS was checking regularly to make sure New Orleans was safer with the cameras. The only review the Inspector General's Office could find was a safety study in 2017 from the city's Office of Performance and Accountability, which found that 76% of the camera sites had fewer crashes from 2008 to 2012.
And ATS has a large incentive to pass along as many tickets as possible to the NOPD. Their compensation for running the city's traffic cameras is based on how many citations are issued.
Each citation nets them between $17 and $23, depending on when the camera was installed.
"As a result, ATS directly benefited from generating large numbers of citations," according to the IG report.
And that money adds up. At the height of the program's ticketing in 2017, NOPD approved 402,000 citations based on the 641,000 possible violations caught on camera.
The city of New Orleans raised $24 million off of these tickets in 2017. ATS took in at least $6.8 million.
The biggest problem with this, which was highlighted throughout the report, is a growing distrust of the motives behind the camera system and the cameras themselves. If residents don't think the cameras are there to protect them, the program could become a snowballing public relations disaster for the city.
"The program also had a significant impact on citizens, both in terms of the financial burden of camera tickets and the potential benefit of safer streets," the report said. "It is important for traffic camera programs to ensure that these safety benefits are sufficient to justify the financial costs imposed on citizens."
Who is in charge?
On the city's side, there has been more than a decade of confusion about who was leading the program, the IG report said.
Originally, the City Council passed the ordinance authorizing the cameras with language describing the Department of Public Works being in charge of it. But after management responsibility was transferred amidst legal challenges from DPW to NOPD in 2010, the command structure was muddied.
Technically, the NOPD was in charge of the traffic camera program. But the agencies involved thought DPW was still leading the program. Even when the city re-opened bids for the contract in 2016, the final wording on the renewed ATS contract was left ambiguous about who was in charge:
"Program activities will be coordinated with DPW and NOPD."
"Because the program lacked clear leadership," the report said, "neither the DPW nor the NOPD assumed responsibility for determining and implementing the necessary operational changes to conform to the new ordinance or provide effective management."
Improper tickets in school zones
Without any agency proactively running the program, changes could be made unannounced, with no transparent decision-making process, the report noted. In at least one instance, it has already happened.
Before Feb. 2019, the cameras near school zones would record violations if the car passed by more than 6 mph over the speed limit, and in other parts of the city if they went more than 10 mph over.
But on Feb. 4, the city reduced the threshold speed to 4 mph in school zones and 8 mph everywhere else.
This move drew widespread criticism when it was revealed in April. It was labeled a secretive revenue-generating scheme by critics. But city officials fought back, saying that the thresholds were cut to protect schoolchildren.
Even outside the well-known speed limit controversy, the city has been issuing illegitimate tickets in school zones, according to the report.
Because the city instructed ATS to program the Orleans Parish School Board's schedule into the cameras, they didn't always match the schedule of the school they were monitoring.
Individual schools could still be in session after the cameras shut down their school-time enforcement, leaving students in danger with no cameras watching out for them.
And on the flipside, drivers would sometimes receive tickets for school zone violations when school was not in session. According to the report, city officials only learned school was out when a ticketed driver called to complain.
If nobody complained, ATS wouldn't know to rescind any tickets for that day, meaning drivers still had to pay the tickets, which ranged from $45 to over $200.
State laws broken, city overpaid
In fact, much of the traffic citation system relied on residents calling to complain in order to avoid losing money to the city.
The Louisiana Uniform Unclaimed Property Act is fairly clear. The state law reads that anybody who has received a payment or thing not owed to him must give it back to the person who gave it.
The city, which had no mechanism to proactively refund overpaid tickets, likely broke this law, the report said.
"The city failed to notify citizens of overpayments on traffic camera citations," according to the report. "This placed the burden onto citation recipients to realize the city was holding their money, and they needed to take steps to ask the city to return it. "
In a Jan. 2019 report, city analysts found New Orleans owed more than $730,000 to almost 6,000 people who had overpaid since 2008. The average person was owed about $94, with individual accounts overpaying by anywhere from $0.01 to over $1,000.
The city kept the money in its bank accounts and didn't tell anybody that they had overpaid. Nobody had ever been tasked with reviewing the Overpayment Liability reports outlining the issue, so the reports - which would have likely raised red flags - went unread for long periods of time, according to the report.
This situation left the city vulnerable to possible sanctions for breaking the Uniform Unclaimed Property Act, because unclaimed money over $50 must be submitted to the Lousiana state treasurer as unclaimed property.
Penalties for failing to comply can be expensive, up to a maximum of $25,000 per non-refunded driver.
Tens of thousands of illegal tickets
The lack of program oversight and clear directives led to tens of thousands of illegal tickets being issued across the program's lifespan.
Generally, NOPD had 30 days from the violation to find the registered owner of the vehicle caught on the tape, according to the 2007 ordinance authorizing the cameras. If they found the registered owner, another 30 days was added to the deadline for NOPD to send them a ticket.
In short, if NOPD couldn't find the owner in 30 days, the citation was voided. But if it took, for example, 15 days from when the violation happened to find the registered owner, NOPD had 30 more days to send them the ticket. Anything sent past day 45 would be illegal.
According to the ordinance, if NOPD found the owner on the 30th day after the violation happened, they had another 30 days to send them a ticket.
But according to the report, NOPD officers misread the ordinance as giving them 60 days after finding the owner to ticket them.
This led to thousands of cases where the owner was identified, but tickets were not sent out in a timely manner, breaking the law of the ordinance.
In 2016, the report found more than 42,000 illegal citations were issued. In 2017, only 1,300 were issued past the 30-day limit. It's unclear why the numbers changed so dramatically between the two years.
3 seconds or less
Even the tickets issued in the first 30 days likely broke internal NOPD policy, the report found.
The NOPD's Traffic Division policy indicates officers should review about 40 to 60 tickets per hour, or one every 60-90 seconds. That includes the 12 seconds needed to watch the video shot from the cameras.
There's also a review process, where officers can ask for a supervisory review if they aren't sure about the citation.
It doesn't appear that review process was used often though.
According to the report, officers took less than 30 seconds to check citations in 86% of the cases reviewed in 2016 and 88% in 2017.
Nearly a quarter of the citations NOPD reviewed in 2017 were looked at for five seconds or less.
Legal loopholes to avoid paying
But residents who got a quickly-checked citation had a legal option: they could fight the ticket in court. And thanks to a loophole in the citation system, just asking for a hearing was often enough to get a ticket suspended forever.
If a resident plans to fight a ticket in court, in what is known as an adjudication hearing, the city's Adjudication Bureau puts a hold on their citation to prevent failure to pay notices from being sent out.
The review found that the Adjudication Bureau had no way to unsuspend a ticket if the defendant never showed up in court. If somebody called in and scheduled a court date to fight their ticket, then failed to appear, the citation was stuck in limbo with no overdue notices sent out.
The citations caught in this loophole never went delinquent, meaning no late fees or booting of the vehicle.
"Consequently, citation recipients who requested hearings but failed to appear effectively got out of their tickets," the review noted. "An unfair loophole for those who engaged in the adjudication process or paid their tickets without question."
In response to a draft version of the report, city officials appeared to accept most of the Inspector General's findings, promising to make changes to the management structure involved in managing traffic cameras. City Hall did have some caveats, however.
City officials only partially accepted the report's findings on school zone tickets being issued while schools were out of session. In his response, Director of Public Works Keith LaGrange said the city was already working to reduce the number of invalid school zone tickets issued.
He added that the department has hired an analyst tasked with coordinating the schedules for various New Orleans schools and providing these schedules to ATS.
NOPD officials also defended their 60-day ticketing policy. Lt. Avery Theard wrote that the "existing NOPD policy and training ensure that citations are issued in accordance with legal requirements in the vast majority of cases."
The Inspector General's Office noted in an amendment to the response that anything past 30 days was still against the law, calling it "critical" that city officials understand the legal limits of their authority.
Despite the one sticking point, Harper said in a statement ahead of the report's release that the city had "represented ... they have already begun implementing" fixes to the problems his office's report outlined.
"Most of these issues can be resolved by designating which agency or department is responsible for overall operations of the TCSP,” Harper said.
Here is a map of all the city's traffic cameras:
► Get breaking news from your neighborhood delivered directly to you by downloading the new FREE WWL-TV News app now in the IOS App Store or Google Play.