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Red-light camera debate: Implications for law enforcement

There are actually two, somewhat conflicting, implications for police officers whose cities and towns follow the 'trend' toward eliminating red-light cameras

According to a variety of mainstream media sources, there’s a “national movement” afoot to eliminate red-light cameras. In the news writeup put together today by PoliceOne Staff, you’ll note that the Los Angeles Police Commission wants to take down all its red-light cameras altogether. Aside from the obvious financial implications of putting bucket trucks under 32 utility poles in an already cash-strapped city, there are public safety and law enforcement implications as well.

Those cameras might save lives and reduce the numbers of traffic-related injuries. Those cameras may also improve the efficiency and effectiveness of police officers on the streets. By freeing up cops from writing citations, those cameras enable law enforcers to focus on criminal interdiction — whether via self-initiated action or responding to calls for service — and serve the needs of the public.

Of course, the public doesn’t understand this — sheep don’t understand the sheepdogs who protect them from the wolves. The sheeple understand getting angry when the letter carrier has a $446 traffic citation included with the utility bills and magazine subscriptions. They also understand that if they muck up the courts with challenges to the legality of the things, or howl loudly enough in the ears of their local Police Commissions and/or political representatives, they can worm their way out of paying for their violations.

Public’s Safety
Myriad studies have shown that red-light cameras lower the number of accidents and injuries at intersections. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, for example, examined a decade of federal traffic data in nearly 100 cities in the United States — 14 of which have red-light cameras — and “calculated that had all 99 installed the devices, 815 lives would have been saved from 2004 through 2008,” according to one report. “The U.S. Conference of Mayors, which coincidentally is headed by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, this week approved a resolution endorsing nationwide adoption of red-light cameras,” that report said.

Despite this fact, public opposition to red-light cameras is at a fever pitch in cities like Albuquerque, Houston, and Spokane, as well as whole states including Florida, Missouri, North Carolina, and Tennessee.

Meanwhile, it bears consideration that a valid argument could be made that the presence of red-light cameras actually increases the incidents of rear-end collisions. Identical numbers can, indeed, be crunched in ways that present two totally different “conclusions.” I think it was Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain) who said, “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.” So there you have it... upside turned upside down.

Upside, Downside
There are actually two, somewhat conflicting, implications for police officers whose cities and towns follow the abovementioned “trend” toward eliminating red-light cameras. When cops are tied up citing violators for the “California roll” during a right-turn-on-red, they are necessarily not doing something else. Attention is being paid to the violator in the car (and his/her passengers), not to what might be happening around the block where that squad car might otherwise be if not for the red-light infraction. Now, should a radio call regarding something exciting happening come in the middle of the process, of course that’s going to take precedence and action will be taken accordingly.

But here’s that real and significant upside to “forcing” patrol to retake responsibility for enforcing those red-light codes: Once you have a vehicle stopped, you have the opportunity to do whatever interdiction the stop presents. The smell of cannabis could be lead to a very good arrest for possession. Shifty, suspicious behavior on the part of a subject could indicate the presence of a person with warrants. Those are just two examples.

Obviously, this is already happening during all the self-initiated red-light infraction stops occurring around the country every day, but hey, it’s worth mentioning that more of the same can only be a good thing.

Legal Battle
Last summer, California Peace Officers’ Association — of which I am a member — sent out a brief in its newsletter which gave some interesting guidance on one local (and specific) legal battle over red-light cameras being waged in the Golden State.

Addressing the case of People v. Khaled, Danny Peelman (Esq.) wrote that the violator (Khaled) successfully had his citation dismissed because the photographic evidence was presented to at non-jury trial by an officer representing the Santa Ana Police Department, not Redflex Traffic Systems, the vendor contracted to supply and maintain the photo enforcement camera system.

“Photographs obtained through red-light camera enforcement are hearsay evidence if not presented directly by the vendor who took the photographs,” Peelman (Esq.) wrote. “This means that your city’s vendor must be called as a witness to establish the foundation necessary to be able to admit the photos into evidence. Without this admissible foundation, your red-light camera case does not have the essential demonstrative evidence that will be necessary to convict the traffic violator.”

Of course, every city and state will be different, and you should consult with your agency’s legal counsel for advice and guidance on how this stuff will impact on your agency, but I offer a this tidbit of information about this California ruling just to get you thinking about the issue.

OK, I’m Curious

1.) Has your city deployed (or is it considering deployment of) red-light cameras?
2.) If yes, what is the level of citizen and politician opposition to red-light cameras?
3.) If that legal/political resistance is significant, what’s your agency doing about it?

Post your comments below, or send me an email.

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