By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 8, 2008
Among the thousands of drivers who have been issued $40 fines after being nabbed by Montgomery County's new speed cameras are scores of county police officers. The difference is, many of the officers are refusing to pay.
The officers are following the advice of their union, which says the citations are issued not to the driver but to the vehicle's owner -- in this case, the county.
That view has rankled Police Chief J. Thomas Manger and County Council Member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville), who chairs the Public Safety Committee.
"You can't have one set of laws for police officers and another one for the rest of the world," Andrews said.
In recent weeks, officers have twice been photographed speeding past a camera and extending a middle finger, an act that police supervisors interpreted as a gesture of defiance. "There is no excuse for that kind of behavior," said Andrews, who was briefed on the incidents.
During the last eight months of 2007, the department's cameras recorded 224 instances in which county police vehicles were nabbed traveling more than 10 mph over the speed limit, the department disclosed this week in response to an inquiry from The Washington Post.
Of those citations, 76 were dismissed after supervisors determined that officers were responding to calls or had other valid reasons to exceed the speed limit. Nearly two-thirds of the remaining 148 fines have not been paid, including an unspecified number that remain under investigation, said Lt. Paul Starks, a police spokesman. He said the number of citations issued to police employees this year is not yet available.
Officer Mark Zifcak, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 35, did not respond to an e-mail and two phone messages this week seeking comment. In a notice posted on its Web site, the union advises that "members should not pay or set court dates for speed camera citations that are issued to the employer."
Manger is demanding that officers pay the fines, a request that has met stiff opposition from union leaders and has been ignored by some sergeants who were asked to investigate whether officers nabbed by the cameras had a valid reason to speed.
"We are not above the law," Manger said in an interview. "It is imperative that the police department hold itself to the same standards that we're holding the public to."
Officials at the county's fire department, sheriff's office and four municipal police departments said employees who have been caught speeding in government vehicles have paid the fines.
"The only time we don't make them pay the fine is if they're on an emergency call," Sheriff Raymond M. Kight said. "We haven't had any resistance at all."
The dispute over the citations is the latest in a series of confrontations between county police commanders and the union, which has become increasingly powerful in recent years.
Leaders of the police union recently filed a grievance arguing that the citations constitute a change in labor conditions that the department must negotiate with the union before implementing.
Some sergeants, who are covered by the union, have refused to investigate whether infractions occurred when officers were responding to calls, forcing commanders to turn to lieutenants, who are not represented by the union, according to two law enforcement sources who spoke on condition of anonymity because the cases are being investigated as personnel matters.
The sources said the cruiser in one of the incidents in which a vulgar gesture was made was assigned to Michael Simpson, an officer in Wheaton. One of the sources said Simpson appears to have been responding to a call in January when he was traveling at more than 80 mph on Randolph Road.
Simpson received speed camera citations in November and December, according to a database of citations obtained under a public records request.
Simpson did not respond to an e-mail message seeking comment, and efforts to contact him through the department's media office were unsuccessful.
Supervisors at the three municipal police departments in the county that operate speed cameras -- Gaithersburg, Rockville and Chevy Chase Village -- said employees have not resisted paying fines.
"We hold them responsible," said Rockville Police Capt. Bob Rappoport, whose department has received about a half-dozen citations. "Our officers have paid out of their own pockets."
Gaithersburg and Rockville officers are not represented by the same union as county police officers, and the Chevy Chase Village police do not have a union.
County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), who said he received and paid for a speed camera citation recently, said that he disagrees with the county police union's position but that he is confident that Manger will hold his officers accountable.
Under the law, owners of vehicles, not drivers, are punished for failure to pay fines. Manger said, however, that officers who continue to ignore citations might be disciplined.
Montgomery is the only county in Maryland that is authorized to use cameras to enforce speed limits, but legislation is moving through the General Assembly this year to allow speed cameras statewide.
A bill introduced by Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration would allow local jurisdictions to use speed cameras in residential neighborhoods, near schools and on highways with construction work. The Senate could vote on the measure as early as next week.