The D.C. police department has spent nearly $74 million in overtime payments to have officers sit in cars monitoring the city’s “automated” photo radar guns, records show.

The money spent represents almost four-fifths of the revenues earned from the tickets the radar guns are issuing, records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show.

Washington is one of several cities to use photo radar. The cameras are hooked up to radar guns, which are placed in squad cars. Whenever a car exceeds the speed limit, the radar gun is supposed to activate the camera. Photos are then taken, license plates are analyzed and tickets mailed to the car owners’ homes. The tickets have brought more than $93 million into the city’s coffers.

Photo radar

Revenues generated (and police overtime spent):

» Fiscal 2005: $25,978,719 ($24,737,036)
» Fiscal 2006: $32,870,237 ($27,825,319)
» Fiscal 2007: $20,160,688 ($18,372,096)
» Fiscal 2008: $14,280,877 ($3,144,839)

Montgomery County is the only other local jurisdiction to use automated photo radar. Unlike D.C., though, Montgomery County leaves its cameras mostly unattended, attached to poles and the like. Therefore, its personnel costs only eat about 6 percent of the ticket revenues.

Virginia law prohibits the use of photo radar.

D.C. police spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump didn’t respond to requests for comment. But officials say that the program curbs speeding. “Here in D.C.,” the police department’s Web site states, “speeding has been reduced dramatically in the enforcement zones where photo radar is operating.”

But the program requires officers to sit in the parked cars for hours at a time, monitoring and calibrating the equipment. That has led to millions in overtime payments, records show. Since fiscal 2005, the department has paid out more than $74 million to monitor the “automated” system.

Overtime payments have steadily decreased in those years — from more than $27.8 million in fiscal 2006 to barely $3 million last year.

Some public safety advocates wonder whether it’s a good investment.
“We do have people whose feet are a little heavy,” said Regina James, advisory neighborhood commissioner for Ward 5. “But I would love to see those officers on the streets.”

The photo radar program has a defender in police union chairman Kris Baumann, an otherwise outspoken critic of police management.

“Given what happened in Phoenix, if we’re going to have those cars up and functional, we need to have a police officer in them,” he said, referring to the April shooting death of a photo radar operator in Phoenix.