EAST CLEVELAND, OH — Traffic cameras have been a polarizing issue for decades, igniting debates over privacy, legality, and public safety. From small towns to bustling metropolises, the use of these cameras for traffic enforcement has sparked controversy, with proponents arguing for their role in enhancing road safety and detractors decrying them as invasive revenue generators that infringe on civil liberties. This national debate over the balance between safety and surveillance has found a striking embodiment in the unfolding drama of East Cleveland, Ohio, where the local traffic violation camera system has become a flashpoint for community frustration and legal contention since the early 2000s.
This isn't the first time the city's automated fine system has been the topic of discussion, however the traffic violation camera system in East Cleveland has recently come under the spotlight yet again. At the center of this controversy are the experiences of residents like Ray Griffin and the perplexing involvement of a third-party company intertwined with city operations.
Ray Griffin, a resident of Cleveland Heights, received a traffic ticket in the mail from the East Cleveland traffic camera violation system that immediately raised several red flags. Griffin’s ticket, issued on December 18th, cited a violation that allegedly occurred nearly a month earlier, on November 21st at 12:55 pm. However, Griffin was adamant about his whereabouts during the time of the supposed violation, stating that he works during those hours, and on the date of the alleged violation, he was at work from 6:27am and didn’t clock out until 5pm. This statement, supported by timecard evidence provided to Cleveland 13 News, casts doubt on the accuracy and legitimacy of the ticket issued; and Mr. Griffin isn’t alone. Griffin's experience resonated with other residents in Cleveland Heights, who shared their stories in a local community Facebook group.
Many recounted similar encounters with the traffic camera system, observing a pattern of inconsistencies. A common piece of advice among residents was to ignore these tickets entirely, with one resident remarking, "as long as you completely ignore the tickets, nothing will happen." This approach, however, contrasts with the official stance that many of these mailer notices historically threaten, such as legal repercussions, warrants, impact to credit scores and even the inability to renew vehicle registration. These widespread sentiments of residents reflect a deep-seated skepticism about the system’s integrity and the repercussions of challenging it. The bottom of the notice claims that Payment is admission of liability. This could also be an indication as to why those who ignore these notices tend to go unpursued.
The issue of traffic cameras in East Cleveland has also stirred a dispute within the city's governance. The East Cleveland City Council, responding to numerous taxpayer complaints, voted in early 2023 to eliminate the speed camera laws. However, the Mayor's office countered, asserting that residents previously voted in favor of the traffic cameras, leading to a charter amendment. This clash was further highlighted by a letter from City Council Vice President Gowdy, which accused the Mayor of choosing not to obey the will of the voters.
East Cleveland Assistant Law Director Heather McCollough, who recently ran for Cleveland Municipal Court Judge and lost to Jeff Johnson in the November 7th General Election, spoke with Cleveland 13 News and expressed clear frustration with the City Council’s stance on the traffic camera program. Addressing the council's attempt to eliminate the speed camera laws, she stated emphatically, “City council has no authority.. they can vote but it doesn’t matter because the citizens voted it in so the council can’t vote it out.” This statement not only highlights a legal interpretation but also underscores a tension between the City Council's legislative efforts and the perceived will of the citizens.
Further, McCollough's responses to technical inquiries about the program repeatedly deflected to the third-party company who owns and manages the cameras. When questioned about the accuracy, maintenance, and officer oversight of the traffic cameras, her consistent advice was to “call the number on the ticket.”; and when questions were asked about contesting a ticket, she said that the third-party handles that as well, and referred us to the same number. When asked about the success rate of those who actually attempted to pursue an appeal, her response was “we don’t keep the statistics for these things”. This deflection strategy avoids direct answers about the city’s involvement and responsibility in the traffic camera system, leaving many questions unanswered and adding to the public's frustration. This deflective approach raises concerns about the transparency and accountability of the program from the city’s perspective.
The photo citations that are issued come in official looking envelopes with "NOTICE OF LIABILITY" in large bold print at the top. The mailings originate from an office in Tempe Arizona and non-electronic payments are to be sent to a PO Box in Seattle Washington. Several things to note on this notice is that nowhere does it claim to be a 'citation'. In fact, on the return stub it states "This violation is a non-moving, non-criminal infraction and no points will be assessed."
The third-party company, who owns and manages the traffic cameras that issue these tickets, prominently featured on the notices as ViolationInfo.com, is actually a subsidiary of Verra Mobility. A deeper dive into Verra Mobility's corporate structure reveals a complex network. This company, registered as a trade name in Arizona, is an extension of American Traffic Solutions, Inc., based in Kansas. American Traffic Solutions, Inc., established in 1992, is led by David Roberts, the president, and Christopher Renzi, the vice president, both from Arizona, as indicated in their latest annual report.
Verra Mobility, which positions itself as a Public Safety Services organization, seems to be no stranger to administrative issues and encountered a hiccup when it did not renew its trade name registration in time this year, leading to an inactive status starting June 12th. This lapse resulted in the trade name being inactive for over a month, until it was reactivated under a new entity number on July 17th. This administrative shuffle within Verra Mobility adds another layer to the already intricate narrative of the traffic camera ticketing system.
Moreover, the presence of city officials in the process adds layers of complexity. An officer, identified as Sergeant Steven Kaleal, claims to have issued the ticket to Mr. Griffin, and according to McCollough is one of the officers who examines these violations for accuracy before signing off on them to be issued in East Cleveland. Cleveland 13 reached out to Sergeant Kaleal for his insights on the traffic camera issue and in our brief conversation, Sergeant Kaleal preferred to maintain discretion with the media, stating, “Unfortunately, I don’t really comment to the media on anything.” However, he was forthcoming in providing the contact details of his direct superior, encouraging us to direct our inquiries to them for more information.
Despite his reticence in discussing the matter at length, Sergeant Kaleal confirmed his involvement in reviewing the tickets issued by traffic cameras. He voiced his concerns over the significant issue of speeding in the school zones of East Cleveland, where these cameras are predominantly positioned. During our conversation, Kaleal indicated he was in the process of examining notices, citing a specific example: “I’m looking at a ticket right now, in front of Shaw Avenue, in front of the high school, 40 in a 20 in a school zone at lunch time. It’s ridiculous the way people speed through here.” This comment underscores his genuine concern for traffic safety in these critical areas; but an inability to comment further may indicate an ignorance to the broader system that controls the program and the financial, logistical and political aspect of it.
For residents looking to contest their tickets, the path leads to Sadie Stewart, whose official role in the city remains unclear, however according to Assistant Law Director McCollough, Stewart can throw out citations issued if she feels like it, after talking to someone who received one. She claimed that there is no real judicial process to this decision and that no judges or lawyers are a part of the process, but rather “she is the woman who deals with phone calls about the speed camera tickets”, McCollough stated. While the extent of Stewart’s involvement in the program, or with the city even, is ambiguous at best, we thought it prudent to reach out to her.
Attempts to contact Stewart only led to a voicemail, which said, "I will not be calling you back unless there is a problem with the dismissal. If you haven’t heard from me in 30 days, either a phone call or a dismissal in the mail, call again." - The existence of Sadie Stewart's position, though her official title is unknown, implies a city conduit to the third-party company, Verra Mobility, that will be further explored as more information becomes available.
The East Cleveland traffic camera saga paints a picture of a system fraught with inconsistencies and a lack of clear responsibility. The intricate relationship between Verra Mobility and the city officials, the conflicting messages from city governance, and the community's growing mistrust all point to a need for greater transparency and accountability. As residents throughout East Cleveland, and in neighboring suburbs like Ray Griffin, continue to question the system's legitimacy, the call for a thorough reevaluation of the traffic camera program becomes increasingly urgent.
Numerous studies have demonstrated that the presence of speed cameras can effectively reduce the rate of drivers exceeding speed limits on local roads. Reports from sources such as VisionZeroNetwork, IIHS, STREETSBLOG NYC have highlighted a notable decrease in speeding-related fatalities in areas equipped with automated enforcement zones. The benefits of implementing measures to curb speeding, particularly in school zones, are evident. However, alongside these clear advantages, there's a growing concern among residents in communities near these auto-enforcement zones. They seek assurance that their rights are respected and that there's sufficient accountability and oversight in the ticketing process. National studies have raised concerns about the potential for these photo enforcement areas to disproportionately target drivers from black and brown communities. This issue is particularly pressing considering the placement of these cameras, which are often found in low-income, inner-city neighborhoods predominantly inhabited by black residents, as reported in a PBS story from July.
This disproportionate targeting raises significant questions about the fairness and equity of the system. Additionally, many local residents, often unchallenged, pay the fines associated with these tickets, potentially exacerbating the wealth gap in these lower-income communities. It's crucial that while the safety benefits of speed cameras are acknowledged, the broader implications on community equity and rights also receive due attention and action.
Other Northeast Ohio cities, such as Garfield and Newburgh Heights are also commonly discussed for their questionable tactics when issuing speed-camera tickets; although unlike East Cleveland, it seems that ignoring those citations may lead to a bit more aggressive collection action, though the extent of the ramifications are not entirely clear.
For those looking to attempt to contest a ticket in East Cleveland and want to reach out to their representative, Sadie Stewart, you can do so by calling (216) 681-2092.