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May 2011
Debate persists over effectiveness of surveillance program

The city's controversial red-light traffic cameras issued 46,000 tickets last year.

And it only took all of four police officers sitting at a few computer monitors to run the system.

Just one of the officers manning the computers at the Los Angeles Police Department's Photo Red Light Unit can do the equivalent work of some 100 out on the streets, according to Sgt. Matthew MacWillie, who oversees the program.

Having three officers patrol one intersection would mean paying three salaries as opposed to operating one camera at $8,125 a month, MacWillie said.

"I've already given more tickets than one officer will write in a day," said Officer Mike Gregg of the Photo Red Light Unit, after about 20 minutes of watching footage of cars sailing through red lights or doing California stops on right turns. "If you're sitting out there, you can get one an hour, if you're lucky."

And that "force-multiplier" effect is one of the main reasons LAPD has defended the program against critics who question the effectiveness of such cameras at preventing accidents.

LAPD says the program frees up patrol officers and makes streets safer, but critics blast it as an unfair use of technology that targets minor offenders to rake in money for a cash-strapped city while offering questionable safety results.

But for the officers, running the system is a relatively simple affair. An Arizona vendor called American Traffic Solutions, which maintains a processing center in Burbank, forwards photos and videos of potential violations to the computer monitors of four officers. They can write about 60 citations each in as many minutes without ever leaving their chairs.

All it takes is several clicks to access the video feeds, a possible replay or two from several different angles, and the final determination: violation, or nonviolation.

With fines for a relatively harmless California stop on a right turn running more than $500 - the same for someone blowing through a red light that can lead to deadly T-bone accidents - state lawmakers and City Council members have faced pressure to eliminate the costly programs.

Studies on whether the cameras make driving safer have yielded mixed results, with supporters and detractors accusing each other of cherry-picking statistics that best suit their views.

At least 13 other states have outright banned similar programs or limit their use, some on grounds of violating drivers' Constitutional rights, and a movement is afoot in California to do the same.

A bill that would have banned the installation of new cameras in January statewide and called for removal of cameras that don't reduce accidents by 2015 failed to win enough votes to make it out of the Assembly last month.

But Assemblyman Paul Cook (R-Yucaipa), author of AB 1008, has vowed to tweak the bill and bring it back before the Assembly.

"California's experiment with red-light cameras has so far led to soaring costs for motorists with no clear reduction in traffic accidents," Cook said, citing the results of grand jury investigations in San Mateo and Napa counties.

The tickets "can consume an entire paycheck for many Californians and, combined with the difficult economy, can leave them in the difficult position of choosing between paying the ticket and putting food on the table," Cook said.

Locally, appellate courts in Orange and San Bernardino counties ruled that footage captured by red-light cameras is inadmissible in court because it is considered hearsay since the officer was not present. But an L.A. appellate court ruled that the evidence was indeed admissible as evidence.

A higher court will ultimately make the decision.

New York State bans their use in smaller cities and limits the number of intersections they can be installed at. Virginia allows cities to use the cameras at no more than one intersection for every 10,000 residents.

Warning of "big brother" and calling the cameras a money grab, a legislative committee in Florida voted to ban their use in March. But the bill is not expected to make it through the Senate.

Los Angeles officials have asked for more information on the city's program, including studies on whether economic factors may have led to a decrease in the number of drivers and therefore accidents, before they decide its fate in July.

"You just want to make sure we've given a good hard look at things - the cost effective issue and what we're really getting for that cost, and if that's really where we want be," said Police Commissioner Debra Yang, who cast a dissenting vote against approving LAPD's report on the program.

LAPD hopes to expand the program by four intersections at a time if a new contract is approved.

LAPD has justified use of the program by citing a 63 percent reduction in accidents at monitored intersections and no fatalities since the $15 million program went live in April 2006. There has been an 18 percent decrease in injury crashes at the intersections, and proof that it has modified driver behavior is indicated by a 10 percent decrease in crashes at all intersections in the city, MacWillie said.

However, a scathing city audit last year determined that while operating at a loss of $2.6 million in the last several years, the program "cannot conclusively demonstrate that it has reduced traffic collisions, thereby reducing public safety."

About 40 percent of tickets remain unpaid, highlighting a resistance by the courts to impose extra punishment on those who don't pay based on liability issues. It takes about 12 to 18 months for violators to pay the fees, MacWillie said.

Critics call the force-multiplier argument a red herring.

"You can't compare the cost of a well-trained police officer with a video camera," said Jay Beeber, the founder of Safer Streets L.A., a motorist safety advocacy group, who has emerged as an outspoken critic of the program. "They don't do the same thing and don't have the same effect on safety.

"Also, you would never put police officers in these locations 'round the clock, seven days a week, because it would be totally unnecessary and a complete waste of resources. So it's not an apples-to-apples comparison."

And others have questioned LAPD's statistics and called them misleading, saying that no complete study has been done to see whether the effects could have been accomplished by simple traffic engineering.

Beeber's report, based on studies from state transportation agencies including Texas and Virginia, calls for lengthening the time of yellow lights and adding an all-red phase to let cars clear the intersection.

But the L.A.'s Department of Transportation say those studies are outdated and don't apply to L.A.'s traffic situation.

"We certainly meet the minimums (of yellow light timing) and on top of that, we add a buffer," said Pauline Chan, DOT senior transportation engineer. "A lot of things prescribed in the guidelines were already implemented by DOT decades ago."

The cameras are spread out between LAPD's four geographic areas instead of at the city's most dangerous intersections, giving critics more firepower in arguing that safety isn't the top priority.

Even council members have admitted that the program was only approved after it was sold as a cash cow that would not only pay for itself but give "free" traffic enforcement.

"They were instituted because they were a moneymaker," said Councilman Paul Koretz. "It was not done because they looked at it and said, 'Let's do it because it's not a moneymaker."'

DOT will study pre- and post-camera crash statistics and identify the 32 intersections that are the most in need of cameras.

"If it's not properly deployed or utilized for the proper purpose, it's not particularly good for public safety," said Paul Weber, head of the Police Protective League. Until the public is assured that they're being properly deployed and properly used and they're effective, I think there's going to be doubt in people's minds."



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