As speed cameras spread, so does vandalism of them

Howard CountyHealthPoliticsSafety of CitizensManufacturing and EngineeringEllicott CityAutomotive Equipment

When the 50-year-old driver handed over his slingshot, he admitted to pelting the speed camera van with glass marbles.

By the time Bruce L. May of Ellicott City was arrested and in Howard County police custody Tuesday night, police said, he had revealed he had taken it personally when he was issued two tickets in the past six weeks after being captured by speed cameras.

The incident near a Howard County elementary school is just the latest in a spate of Baltimore-area vandalism against speed cameras. During the past year, vans carrying the cameras and stationary cameras positioned around the region have been targeted with rocks, spray paint and hammers.

Last summer, in a highly publicized incident, a man wielding a hammer and a shotgun smashed the windshield of a speed enforcement van on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway near the airport. That assailant remains at large, Maryland State Police spokesman Gregory M. Shipley said Wednesday.

And the reaction to the cameras isn't confined to Maryland. A District of Columbia scofflaw this spring marked disguised camera locations with a bright orange X.  In 2008, Arizona's Department of Public Safety dispatched an investigator to determine who had blocked camera lenses with Silly String and Post-It notes, according to news reports.

As the cameras spread throughout the Baltimore area — there are roughly 100 across the region doling out $40 tickets — vandals have exacted their own form of justice against them.

Motorists gripe most about hard-to-see speed cameras tucked near schools, said Ragina C. Averella of AAA Mid-Atlantic.

"In most cases, they're frustrated with what they view as a game of 'gotcha,'" she said.

But officials say those feelings of frustration are no justification for vandalism.

"It's not OK for people to voice their opposition through violence," Howard County Police Chief William McMahon said. "That's not what democracy is about. ... This is violence, and there's people inside many of those vans."

People tend not to object to cameras in work zones, but many drivers find those near schools poorly marked and suspect they are set up to generate money for jurisdictions rather to ensure public safety, Averella said.

The cameras have spread since a 2009 state law allowed local jurisdictions to install them.

Howard County has collected $482,040 in fines and issued more than 15,000 citations since launching its program a little more than six months ago, Howard County Police Department spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn said. Llewellyn said the money covers the cost of the program.

Anne Arundel County is the largest suburban jurisdiction without speed cameras, in part because constituents there disliked them.

"I think most of the citizens I've talked to in the county resent the 'Big Brother' policy that the camera represents," County Executive John R. Leopold said.

While denouncing the vandalism, Leopold added that he also decided not to use the speed cameras because he thought they were a bad way to raise money and that a face-to-face interaction with a police officer was a more effective deterrent to speeders.

Even people who can keep their temper under control find speed-camera tickets infuriating, said George Anderson, executive director of the California-based American Association of Anger Management Providers.

"One, it's the element of surprise," said Anderson, who chuckled at May's slingshot retaliation. "Two, it's a feeling — a perception — that they're out to get you."

Police said May's alleged attack outside an Ellicott City elementary school — the marbles that were used left a quarter-sized dent and caused roughly $500 worth of damage — marked the third violent vandalism of speed enforcement vehicles in Howard County this month. In June, a technician was hit by a rock tossed through a speed camera van window, officials said.

The Howard assaults follow a torching of a Catonsville speed camera in April, the fifth camera vandalism in Baltimore County in the past two years. Vandals have uprooted equipment, smashed protective plexiglass coverings and spray-painted cameras.

In January, a Baltimore speed camera near Bolton Hill went up in flames on a Friday morning.

Speed camera vendor Affiliated Computer Services, which provides speed cameras for Baltimore City and Howard and Baltimore counties, would not comment on how often their equipment is vandalized.

"We don't discuss the safety and security measures of our apparatus," company spokesman Chris Gilligan said, declining to elaborate on how a van might be protected from marbles.

According to charging documents, May twice unleashed marbles from the window of his minivan as he cruised past the speed camera vehicle. The driver of the speed van, which had been parked outside Manor Woods Elementary School, followed May's minivan and honked until May pulled over.

A Howard County police officer arrived to arrest May, who was charged with second-degree assault, destruction of property and reckless endangerment. He was released on $3,000 bond.

May could not be reached for comment, but the officer wrote in documents that "May stated he was sorry and said he was stupid for shooting at the van."

ecox@baltsun.com

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