News & Politics

The Complicated “Heroism” of a Man Accused of Smashing DC Traffic Cameras

Not all heroes wear capes. Screenshot via Metropolitan Police Department.

An unidentified man suspected of smashing 11 of the District’s traffic cameras that produce tickets for drivers who speed or run red lights is being celebrated by some as a hero after DC Police released footage of one camera’s violent demise. Police say that the cameras, located mostly around Northeast DC, were reported to be malfunctioning last Tuesday. When officers checked out the locations, they found the cameras damaged as a result of vandalism.

Over the weekend, police released surveillance video of one camera on Kenilworth Ave., Northeast, being knocked down and kicked repeatedly. (One effect of having a city with a lot of closed-circuit video: an attack on one camera might be picked up by another nearby.) The clip shows a sport-utility vehicle stopping alongside the camera, which is mounted on an electrical box in a median, followed by a man exiting the car, pushing over the box, and breaking the camera off its mount with a swift toe kick before he tosses it to the side of the road. The man then gets back in the car, which takes off, possibly for the next targeted camera.

It didn’t take long for the suspect to be hailed as a local hero. Sonny Bunch of the Washington Free Beacon sounds like he’d knight the man, if the United States offered such honors. The video, which lacks sound, has also been remixed with a couple songs celebrating the vandalism. Josh Billinson, an editor at the conservative website Independent Journal Review, uploaded two versions to Twitter. One features the camera’s downfall set to the Foo Fighters’ “My Hero”; the other opts for Enrique Iglesias’s 2001 ballad “Hero.”

At a glance, it’s easy to watch the police video—any version of it—as a cathartic act of anonymous heroism. Who among DC motorists hasn’t been surprised with a notice in the mail that they ran afoul of one of the traffic cameras’ watchful lenses? There seem to be more and more spots around town where a driver can be nailed with each passing year; the city says there are about 300 cameras already installed or proposed. Some are easier to spot, like the Kenilworth Avenue camera destroyed in the video; others, mounted on streetlight poles, are easily missed. And they’re a reliable source of city revenue, issuing about 994,000 tickets that brought in more than $99 million in fiscal 2016, according to statistics obtained last year by AAA Mid-Atlantic.

The level at which DC’s traffic-camera network issues tickets is staggering, and has given the city a reputation as a bit of a speed trap. About two dozen cameras resulted in $1 million in tickets each during 2016, AAA says, and drivers who do not pay on time often find their fines doubled. (The auto club is backing legislation in the DC Council that would relax the penalties for late payments and create an amnesty program for drivers who rack up more than $1,000 in tickets.) It’s also much tougher to challenge a camera-issued ticket than it is one written by a real, live police officer. In 2016, AAA found that 71 percent of people who contested moving violations on District streets had their tickets dismissed; but the success rate for people who challenged tickets received in the mail after being dinged by a mounted camera was only 20 percent.

Steep as the fines are, it’s not unreasonable to expect drivers on city streets that are also used by people not in cars to go the speed limit, or at least not blow through red lights at busy intersections. A map of the city’s most dangerous crossings for pedestrians correlates fairly well with with the publicly available map of camera locations. And the number of pedestrian fatalities in DC has fallen recently, even as they increase nationally.

Still, it’s probably okay to enjoy a soundtracked video of one of those persnickety cameras meeting its demise, even if you disagree with the intended policy outcome. This writer—and repeat violator of DC traffic cameras—is still waiting for a version that uses Celine Dion‘s “My Heart Will Go On,” Andrew W.K.‘s “Party Hard,” or Crime Mob‘s “Knuck if You Buck.”

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.