When many drivers think of getting a speeding ticket, they think of police cars sitting on the roadside, an officer with a radar gun testing speeds to within half a mile an hour. The reality in Alexandria, Virginia, has not been so high-tech or reliable, according to a recently-released audit.

The Alexandria Office of Internal Audit wants big changes to the city’s ways of confirming the speed of cars on the road. In the meantime, people with speeding tickets from the city have a way to ask the city for a refund of their fines.

Thousands of tickets based on bad evidence

According to city officials, several Virginia drivers have lost their licenses thanks to doubtful speed measures or police may even have arrested them for reckless driving using bad evidence.

Almost 2,200 of the nearly 20,000 speeding tickets issued by Alexandria police in the past 3 years were based on unreliable speed measurements.

Using sloppy squad car speedometers to give tickets

The police ticketed drivers for speeding by matching their speed in a police cruiser and simply checking the cruiser’s speedometer. The method assumes the squad car’s speedometer is correct, and that takes calibration (matching the dial on the dashboard to the true speed of the vehicle).

This is where Alexandria officers fell short.

The city says its police should test its own squad cars every six months by running them on a stationary “dynamometer,” a kind of car treadmill.

They did not do this often enough and, at least once, they ran one car five times, using the “extra” results to fake the results of other cars. After catching one worker faking results in 2017, the department allowed them to continue testing 109 more until early in 2019.

Auditor finds “difficulty articulating ethical concepts”

When Alexandria’s auditor looked into the methods of the city’s police department, they found “staff members had difficulty articulating ethical concepts or an understanding of the ramifications of failure” to calibrate the methods used to issue tickets.

The auditor found some employees who did the calibration to be confused and unable to explain the methods. Some staff were unaware that the failures could result in costs to the city.