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SafeSpeed rep under federal scrutiny pushed Oak Lawn to issue more red-light-camera tickets

John O’Sullivan, who’s also a south suburban political operative, was part of an effort to pressure police to cite more drivers for violations, records and interviews show.

SafeSpeed consultant John O’Sullivan, who’s also the Worth Township supervisor.
SafeSpeed consultant John O’Sullivan, who’s also the Worth Township supervisor.
Sun-Times files

In September 2015, shortly before Oak Lawn’s red-light cameras from SafeSpeed, LLC, went live at two busy intersections, a company official wrote the south suburb’s village manager about a new marketing campaign with the slogan: “Choose safety, stop on red.”

Soon after, SafeSpeed and Oak Lawn officials engaged in a behind-the-scenes dispute over how many red-light tickets were being issued, with the company pushing Oak Lawn for more, records and interviews show.

More tickets would bring more revenue to Oak Lawn, SafeSpeed and its commissioned sales consultants.

Leading the push for more aggressive ticketing were two former legislators from Oak Lawn: Michael Carberry and John O’Sullivan, according to records and interviews.

Former state Rep. Michael Carberry, who previously was on the Oak Lawn village board.
Former state Rep. Michael Carberry, who previously was on the Oak Lawn village board.
Illinois General Assembly

At the time, Carberry was on the village board, and O’Sullivan was Worth Township’s Democratic committeeman and a sales consultant for SafeSpeed who appeared to be overseeing Oak Lawn’s account.

Interviews and records show village officials grew leery of their pressuring to ramp up ticketing and committed to the police department — not company employees — determining what constituted a violation.

SafeSpeed is now a focus of a federal corruption investigation that’s looking in part into whether company representatives landed deals through payoffs. O’Sullivan is among those who have been interviewed or subpoenaed by federal authorities. No one has been charged with any crime.

Oak Lawn officials said the authorities haven’t contacted Village Hall. But the village recently gave SafeSpeed notice it’s ending its relationship with the company at year’s end, not renewing its contract.

“The product, in itself, is a good product,” Oak Lawn Mayor Sandra Bury said. “But the way the company is operating, you don’t feel good about it.”

Bury said no decision has been made about whether to hire another company to operate cameras at the same intersections — 95th Street / Pulaski Road and 111th Street / Cicero Avenue.

A sign warns that the intersection of 111th Street and Cicero Avenue in Oak Lawn has red-light cameras.
A sign warns that the intersection of 111th Street and Cicero Avenue in Oak Lawn has red-light cameras.
Robert Herguth / Sun-Times

The village also is cutting ties with another company named in federal search warrants served on other southwest suburbs: TechniCraft, which has a contract with Oak Lawn to tow cars the police determine need to be hauled away.

Among those concerned about the push by SafeSpeed and Carberry was Oak Lawn Village Manager Larry Deetjen, who emailed himself a summary of what transpired in 2016, when Carberry encouraged a fellow trustee to go to SafeSpeed’s Loop headquarters to view “the video recordings of alleged right turn violations rejected” by Oak Lawn police for ticketing.

SafeSpeed operates the cameras, and its employees review possible violations that are sent to police to make a final determination of whether a ticket is issued.

The other trustee “told Carberry that he believed in police officer discretion and that he was backing” the department, according to Deetjen’s email.

“Carberry told him he was disappointed” in Deetjen “for not pressing police harder and alluded to the threat that John O’Sullivan would bring” another trustee to SafeSpeed to pressure the village board into getting the police to issue more red-light tickets.

Email showing behind-the-scenes efforts by SafeSpeed in Oak Lawn to get the police to issue more red-light-camera tickets.
Email showing behind-the-scenes efforts by SafeSpeed in Oak Lawn to get the police to issue more red-light-camera tickets.

Other records show Carberry had “continued concern about rejection rates” and compared Oak Lawn to Crestwood, where red-light cameras were “raking in the dough.”

Michael Murray, then Oak Lawn’s police chief, and Deetjen resisted efforts to issue more red-light tickets.

“Chief Murray was very rattled by that, that they’d tell him how to do that, and the administration was totally behind the chief,” Bury said. Of SafeSpeed, she said, “They’re there to serve our police and not the other way around.”

A SafeSpeed spokesman declined to comment, as did Carberry. O’Sullivan couldn’t be reached.

The rate at which Oak Lawn officers sustained tickets based on SafeSpeed’s cameras differed vastly early on, records show, but a source said that at one point roughly 70 percent of possible violations resulted in Oak Lawn issuing a ticket.

The company “said you have to be in the 90s, or we’re wasting our time,” the source said.

Before the cameras were operational, Murray said, SafeSpeed sent over videos of different red-turn scenarios, and the police decided which types would merit a ticket in the future. But when the cameras went live, SafeSpeed still sent over red-turn videos that Oak Lawn had said it wouldn’t ticket, so they weren’t approved, Murray said.

The source said the company kept up the pressure for about a year.

At a meeting with the company attended by SafeSpeed co-CEO Nikki Zollar, things came to a head, and afterwards SafeSpeed stopped sending over marginal violations, village officials said.

The sustain rate rose. Records show that last year SafeSpeed sent Oak Lawn 9,807 videos to review, and 9,061 were “approved” by police to be ticketed — more than 90%.

The village keeps roughly 60 percent of the revenue, which came to more than $360,000 last year, according to Oak Lawn officials, who use a different red-light camera company at other intersections.