Scottsdale made a deal with the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office and the Arizona Department of Public Safety in January to ignore their own speed violations snapped by the city’s pilot Loop 101 photo enforcement system.
The arrangement meant sheriff’s office and DPS vehicles exceeding the posted 65 mph speed limit on Loop 101 received a free pass, even though in some cases police officials admitted the speeding might not have been justified.
Some of the speeds recorded were significant, up to 117 mph.
Since the high-profile camera system was turned on Jan. 22, city records show that 16 emergency vehicles have been captured going 100 mph or more, mostly DPS and sheriff’s office patrol vehicles. No emergency lights could be seen on five of the vehicles.
Overall, the system caught 177 emergency vehicles going at least 11 mph over the 65 mph speed limit — mostly patrol cars and a few ambulances, officials said.
The city changed its policy after the Tribune filed a second public records request to view the pictures and data from those 16 cases, said Scottsdale police Sgt. Mark Clark.
“There was communication at the chief level that we’re going to be sending . . . notice of violations for the next several months,” Clark said. What DPS and the sheriff’s office does with those notices is up to them, he added.
Asked if the change in policy was related to the Tribune’s request, Clark said, “Absolutely.”
The camera enforcement program is scheduled to end in late October, when the city will evaluate whether the system reduced collisions or slowed down speeders.
The case of automated professional courtesy was a touchy one for police. The Tribune learned in February that some emergency vehicles were captured by the system going 100 mph or more. But the city did not release those photos after a request for all photos of vehicles caught going at those speeds. In March, city officials said they did not intend to release those photos.
The city did comply with another request made June 23 specifically for data concerning the 16 speeding emergency vehicles. Police blurred the faces of the officers, saying some of them could have been transferred to undercover work.
Clark said he notified the sheriff’s office and DPS of the public records request to Scottsdale in June, at which point sheriff’s Lt. Paul Chagolla asked for and received the unredacted face and license plate photos. DPS received unredacted citation information at the same time from Scottsdale, but did not request the face and plate photos, Clark said.
Chagolla and DPS public affairs personnel said last week they had not identified the officers in the photos.
Yet in a June 28 e-mail, sheriff’s Capt. Larry Black told Scottsdale police he was researching the status of the vehicles to determine what they were doing when they were caught by the cameras.
Black could not be reached for comment. Chagolla denied a request to interview Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
NOT SENDING VIOLATIONS ‘WRONG’
The arrangement not to send the violations was made when Scottsdale officials met with the two law enforcement agencies just before the enforcement system was turned on, Clark said. DPS and sheriff’s office representatives were asked what they wanted done with the recorded speed violations that would inevitably come up, he said.
“DPS and MCSO said they didn’t want to see them, and so we honored that,” Clark said.
The 16 emergency vehicles going 100 mph or more included five sheriff’s office vehicles, seven DPS patrol cars and one motorcycle, a Scottsdale police car, a Salt River Police Department motorcycle and an unmarked car from an unidentified law enforcement agency.
Those recorded violations were kept in-house by Redflex Traffic Systems, which operates the system for Scottsdale. On violation forms associated with the speeding vehicle, identifying information such as the license plate number was not typed in by Redflex as it is for other offending vehicles.
Clark said Scottsdale Police Chief Alan Rodbell realized not sending the violations to the sheriff’s office and DPS was “wrong” and that the policy needed to be changed. Rodbell did not respond to a request for comments.
Despite the change, notices — rather than citations — will be sent to the agencies, just as would be done for vehicles registered to corporations or rental car companies, Clark said. After that, the agencies can decide what to do, he said.
The sheriff’s office and DPS said last week that they will investigate the circumstances of each notice.
Scottsdale, like some other East Valley cities that have used photo radar vans on surface streets for years, maintains public credibility by not immediately dismissing photo citations that police acquire. Instead, every one is investigated and the officer receives a ticket if there is no justification for the speed, Clark said.
Two Scottsdale officers received photo citations last year for unjustified speeding, he said.
He added that discipline is possible for officers who rack up multiple unjustified photo citations or otherwise don’t follow policy.
It works the same in Mesa, said Sgt. Chuck Trapani. Though the law allows officers to speed during emergencies, red-light camera and photo speed violations are checked out.
“We pull up the officer’s history, I think it’s an hour before and hour after” the alleged violation, Trapani said. “If he was just going to lunch and runs a red light, he gets a ticket like anyone else.”
The deal to keep the sheriff’s office and DPS from getting speeding tickets went on even as the Scottsdale Police Department was arresting people accused of driving faster than 100 mph through the camera enforcement zone on Loop 101 between Shea Boulevard and Scottsdale Road.
In two cases in which people were arrested for going 110 mph, police said such speeds were unacceptable, and the drivers were later charged with reckless driving in addition to speeding.
However, sometimes speeding by police is justified, and each agency has policies that dictate when it can occur.
“Sometimes they need to and do travel at speeds faster than the speed limit,” Chagolla said.
On April 2, a sheriff’s vehicle clocked at 110 mph was probably en route to a hostage situation, Chagolla said. And police believe that on April 5 and 9, sheriff’s vehicles clocked at 109 mph were en route to help retrieve bodies during a homicide investigation, Chagolla said.
Chagolla said no corresponding emergencies could be found for two sheriff’s vehicles among the 100-mph-plus speeders.
Scottsdale’s policy says that vehicles must have “extraordinary circumstances” for traveling more than 20 mph over the posted speed limit. Because of that, the department formally reprimanded the Scottsdale officer pictured in the group of 16 who was going 101 mph, even though the officer was en route to a call of a man with a gun in the Grayhawk community, Clark said.
That officer didn’t have his flashing lights on, either, though using emergency lights is discretionary, Clark said. Police have found that it is not necessarily safer to travel at high speeds with flashing lights because sometimes the cars ahead will slam on their brakes to slow down.
DPS policy prohibits officers from exceeding posted speed limits by 25 mph in rural areas and 10 mph in urban areas when responding to an emergency, said DPS Lt. Jeff King.
However, “if a car blows by you at 110, obviously you have to take action,” he said.
In those “proactive” circumstances, officers can go as fast as they deem reasonable and prudent.
“Everyone would drive 85-90 if our policy said we can’t drive over 85 mph,” he said.
Activating the emergency lights is discretionary, though it’s recommended when officers are speeding so the public knows the car is on official business, said DPS spokesman Rick Knight.
Asked if some of the DPS cars photographed with their flashing lights off may have been unjustified in their speeding, Knight said, “our guys are better than that.”
However, he said all the pictures of speeding cars will be reviewed, and officers without just cause for violations may be subject to discipline.
“We’re a professional agency,” Knight said. “If we find there are problems, we’ll definitely look into them.”
- Tribune writer Mike Sakal contributed to this report.