D.C.’s Sweepercam—Or Should We Say “Sweeperscam?"

By Rend Smith
|  Wednesday, Oct 14, 2009  |  Updated 11:45 PM EDT
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Sweeperscam?

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D.C.’s Sweepercam—Or Should We Say “Sweeperscam? was originally published on City Desk on Oct. 14, 2009, at 3:57 pm

Finding parking in Kent Boese’s stomping grounds in the Park View/Petworth region often involves some trolling. Boese, however, had a lucky streak on a certain stretch of Park Place NW—his go-to spot. “The space is in front of my neighbors, and we get along well,” says Boese, adding that he liked to park there because it helped protect the neighbor’s curbside garden.

But last fall, something went wrong at his fallback parking space. A letter from the city informing him his car had been photographed there by D.C.’s newest surveillance snitch, Sweepercam, a ticketing camera hoisted to the city’s street sweepers. Boese’s 2002 Dodge Dakota had been parked in the way during a street cleaning. To Boese’s relief, the letter was just a warning, a dry run of sorts for Sweepercam.

Boese knew the city had rigged expensive cameras equipped with license plate recognition software to some of its street sweeper fleet. What he didn’t know was why he’d gotten the warning. Park Place had no signs indicating street sweeping hours—it hadn’t, he recollected, for the year and half he’d been camping his vehicle there. Boese says he called the Department of Public Works (DPW) to let them know their robocop was on the fritz.

The response he got from the voice on the other end of the line was simple: We know. The system was being fouled up by human error, he claims he was told. Street sweeper drivers were forgetting to turn their Sweepercams off while chugging by areas not slated for swishing. That meant Sweepercam sometimes photographed cars that were legally parked. DPW was working on fixing the situation; sorry for the inconvenience.

Boese wasn’t worried. “I figured that’s what the test run was for,” he says.

As fans of the McRib know, however, a little market testing doesn’t always yield an infallible product. Months after its beta run, Sweepercam mailed Boese a $30 citation for parking in the same spot, and the guy was irked. “Maybe I had a bad day” he says, “but I sat down and wrote an e-mail.” The angry message went to Ward 1 Councilmember–cum–Sweepercam advocate Jim Graham.

“OK, who do I contact about a parking ticket I just got in the mail? The street sweeper photographed me on Thursday. HOWEVER, its because they forgot to turn off the camera.” the email reads in part.”They did this to me last fall when they did the trial and mailed out the warnings. Can we not hire competent city employees?”

Ever the constituent-service monster, Graham replied, “Thanks. Let me with this email ask Dir Howland to look into this. If it happened to you in this way, it probably happened to others.”

DPW Director William O. Howland Jr. looked into Boese’s citation himself and found the resident was right—the ticket was bogus. “DPW will administratively void the ticket,” he wrote Boese.

Graham had a pretty solid hunch, as well: At a minimum, there are hundreds of victims of Sweepercam indiscretions. Of the 22,000 tickets dispensed by Sweepercam so far, DPW says, 500 have been chucked due to “technical kinks.”

In an e-mail, DPW spokesperson Nancee Lyons speaks to various scenarios for screwups: “The camera may have captured the wrong vehicle, a duplicate ticket may have been issued, the camera may have been triggered accidentally and a ticket may have been issued during a day and hours when there was no street sweeping…” As for Boese’s suspicion that sweeper drivers are leaving their cameras on even when they’re not cleaning, Lyons allows there have been cases where a camera “perhaps was not shut off promptly.” “But the information that goes to the central computer system is reviewed before it turns to a ticket so most of those mistakes are caught.”

The Sweepercam is a fabulous revenue vehicle, considering that its has dished out about $775,000 in ticket fines since March. But given its high-tech bona fides, can it be that hard to turn off?

A source at Affiliated Computer Services, the private outfit that installed the city’s Sweepercams, says nah. “There’s a pause/record button on the touch screen display in the cab of the sweeper,” the source says. All a driver has to do is hit that button.

Howland insists his drivers aren’t regularly screwing up Sweepercam use: “There have not been many complaints about the Sweepercam program. If a ticket was issued in error we try to address the issue and correct it. But there have been few errors.”

So how did things turn out for Boese? After his fine first doubled, he eventually received a letter from DPW showing the bill had been zeroed out. Though that turned out well for the car owner, not everything did. Not too long ago, his parking space lost some of its appeal when the city festooned Park Place with street-cleaning signs.

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