Ohio town understaffed by police boycotts traffic cameras
After one month, the number of citations that went out was more than triple the town's population
By Dan Sewell
ELMWOOD PLACE, Ohio — This little village had a big problem.
Each day, thousands of cars — sometimes as many as 18,000 — rolled along Elmwood Place's streets, crossing the third-of-a-mile town to get to neighboring Cincinnati or major employers in bustling suburbs or heavily traveled Interstate 75. Many zipped by Elmwood Place's modest homes and small businesses at speeds well above the 25 mph limit.
Bedeviled by tight budgets, the police force was undermanned. The situation, villagers feared, was dangerous.
Then the cameras were turned on, and all hell broke loose.
Like hundreds of other U.S. communities big and small, Elmwood Place hired an outside company to install cameras to record traffic violations and mail out citations.
In the first month after the cameras began operating, late last year, 6,600 tickets went out — more than triple the village's population. Before some unsuspecting drivers realized it, they had racked up multiple $105 citations they would learn about when their mail arrived weeks later. Some 70 parishioners, or more than half the congregation at Our Lady of Lavang Catholic Community Church, were ticketed on one Sunday last September.
Soon, there was a Facebook page promoting a boycott of the village, a petition drive against cameras, and a lawsuit against the village that threatened to wreck Elmwood Place financially. Four council members resigned. And an atmosphere of distrust and uneasiness hung over a village that traced its roots back to the 19th century, before traffic cameras or even automotive traffic.
"I think Elmwood Place tried to do something, but maybe not in the right way," said Catherine Jones, who brought a chair and small table out of her namesake Southern-style restaurant on a recent afternoon and sat in the sun as she read her Bible and wrote out notes about the verses.
Just last year, she recalled, a pedestrian was hit and killed a couple blocks from her restaurant, near an elementary school. So she understood that something had to be done. But now she is among many small business owners worried that the cameras have given the village a speed-trap stigma.
Few things will rile citizens quicker than getting tickets in the mail, along with photos of their vehicles under a red light. The letters usually inform them they will not be assessed traffic violation "points"; nor will their insurance company be contacted. But they must pay up, or face a collection agency and damage to their credit ratings.
Supporters of camera enforcement say they stretch law enforcement resources, and they usually result in safer driving and thus save lives. Opponents see cameras giving governments a way to grab more money from taxpayer pockets, putting local policing in the hands of remote, for-profit companies, and taking society another step toward an Orwellian state of constant surveillance for misbehavior.
In Arizona, where two large photo enforcement companies are based, red-light and speed enforcement cameras have been a matter of contention for years. Gov. Jan Brewer scuttled a state program that put speed-enforcement cameras on freeways and interstates in 2010 when a contract expired; efforts to ban the devices used by many cities and towns are a yearly fixture in the Legislature.
In February, San Diego followed Los Angeles and Pasadena in dropping traffic camera citations; the mayor said they bred disrespect for the law because residents believed they were meant to make money, not reduce accidents. Legislation to require communities to get state permits before installing traffic cameras stalled this year in Iowa, while a group called Stop Big Brother has been trying to head off cameras in Iowa City.
There are 12 states that ban speed cameras, and nine prohibit red-light cameras.
Yet despite the critics and complaints, camera use is growing overall. The New York state legislature this month approved installing speed cameras in New York City school zones. Communities with traffic cameras, or automated enforcement, have increased more than fivefold across the country in less than a decade, with red-light cameras in 530 municipalities and speeding cameras in 125, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
"There is Zeitgeist in the country right now on privacy concerns, concerns about intrusion; we understand that," said Jonathan Adkins of the Governors Highway Safety Association, which promotes safety nationally through state-level efforts. That group and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an Arlington, Va.-based nonprofit organization funded by auto insurers, say studies show cameras result in a reduction of fatal crashes caused by red light-running, and in reduced speeding in pedestrian-sensitive areas such as school zones.
"What we've seen from the field is red light cameras and safety cameras are both important tools in the safety tool box," Adkins said, adding that they should complement, not replace, law enforcement and should be focused on safety, not boosting budgets.
Holly Calhoun doesn't believe they were about safety in her hardscrabble village.
"Elmwood was just doing it because they needed money," said the manager of Elmwood Quick Mart, which offers phone cards, lottery tickets and Mexican food, and advertises its willingness to accept food stamps.
"People couldn't afford those tickets," Calhoun said. "They can barely afford to pay their bills. It was pretty sad."
Settled by German farmers and laborers who came up from Appalachian Kentucky, Elmwood Place was incorporated in 1890. Like many "inner-ring" American suburbs, it hit its peak many decades ago. Older residents recall bucolic times of moonlit concerts and tire swings hanging from backyard trees.
But outsourcing of blue-collar work made life tougher for many residents, and the village's incomes and housing values fell well below statewide averages. Housing stock deteriorated to the point where you can buy a two-bedroom fixer-upper for less than $60,000.
When William Peskin joined the police force in 1998, there were nine officers. Now the police chief is the only full-time law enforcement officer left. He said concerns grew after accidents around the elementary school; village officials looked into traffic cameras and became convinced that they were the most practical way to make the village safer.
Cameras at the village limits and in the school zone dramatically curtailed speeding once citations started going out, Peskin said. From 20,000 speeders clocked in a two-week trial period last summer, the number soon dropped to a quarter of that.
Former county prosecutor Mike Allen filed a lawsuit against the town. Among the plaintiffs: the Rev. Chau Pham, who said church attendance dropped by a third after that Sunday when so many congregants — including him — were ticketed; David Downs, owner of St. Bernard Polishing for 25 years, who said long-time customers had vowed to shop elsewhere because they had been ticketed; and a Habitat for Humanity worker who was cited four times.
"Elmwood Place is engaging in nothing more than a high-tech game of three-card monte," Judge Robert P. Ruehlman wrote March 7 in a colorful opinion that has heartened camera foes across the country. "It is a scam that the motorists can't win."
The judge said the village was on pace to assess $2 million in six months (the village's annual budget is $1.3 million). Maryland-based Optotraffic, owner and operator of the photo enforcement system in return for 40 percent of revenue, had already reaped $500,000 in about four months.
Used words such as "scheme," "sham," "stacked," and "total disregard for due process," Ruehlman declared the village's photo-enforcement ordinance invalid and unenforceable.
Elmwood Place is appealing, and believes it has the law on its side.
"It's unfortunate that the judge doesn't see it as a safety issue," Peskin said.
Ohio courts have upheld camera enforcement in some of the state's biggest cities as a legitimate exercise of local government power; the Ohio Supreme Court heard arguments in 2008 on the city of Akron's speeding cameras and approved them.
Akron began its program in 2005 after a 5-year-old child was killed. Some 3,000 citations in the first few weeks elicited public outcry, and then a lawsuit filed by attorney Warner Mendenhall after his wife Kelly was ticketed. Mendenhall said he found in his research that camera enforcement is often inconsistently carried out, the cameras aren't always accurate, and that in many places, they are clearly used as a revenue booster.
Steve Fallis, the city's assistant law director, said Akron uses the cameras only in school zones, and motorists have visual warnings they are in use. Any net income from the $100 citations goes into a city safety fund, not for the general budget. And there is no fee for an administrative hearing to challenge a citation. Elmwood Place charged $25
Mendenhall, whose wife's ticket was tossed out by the city when she appealed a lack of signage at the time, isn't convinced the legality has been settled. Maybe, he said, Elmwood Place will be the launching pad for the challenge that gets the matter to a higher authority.
"To have this patchwork quilt of laws ... I really would hope that someone would take this on up to (U.S). Supreme Court," Mendenhall said.
Recently, passions in Elmwood Place have cooled a bit. At a June council meeting, fewer than a dozen people turned out.
Taking a cigarette break out back, Mayor Stephanie Morgan talked briefly and reluctantly about the controversy, which she described as "challenging."
She defended the cameras. "The speeding was just horrible," Morgan said. But asked whether her constituents agree that cameras were the best solution, the 39-year-old lifelong resident repeated the question aloud and said: "You'll have to ask them."
Bill Wilson, 43, is running for village council in the fall election. He returned to Elmwood Place after living in southwest Florida for 20 years; there, he said, red-light cameras, speeding cameras, accident cameras and crime security cameras are commonplace.
"You get accustomed to it," Wilson said.
In Elmwood Place, the cameras didn't last long enough for anyone to grow accustomed to them. But apparently, they lasted longer than folks realized: On Thursday, Judge Ruehlman found that the camera company had continued to mail out citations for weeks after he ordered that it stop. He ruled Elmwood Village in contempt and said the cameras and equipment must be seized and stored until the case is resolved.
On a recent evening just before the contempt order, Holly Calhoun left her store, crossed the street and gazed up into a camera, wondering what, if anything, it was recording. Two men in a car stopped and asked what was going on. She told them she is opposed to cameras; they each gave her a thumb's up and drove off.
Business, Calhoun said, has been slow to rebound; most people don't seem to believe the cameras aren't in full operation.
Elmwood Place is caught in a speed trap of its own making. On the one hand, the village faces a crippling financial blow if litigation succeeds in forcing it to pay back all the fines already collected plus legal costs; on the other, Calhoun and others think if the village wins its case and brings back the cameras, the effects on business could be catastrophic.
"I think it's going to become a ghost town," she said.
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