Saturday, December 12, 2009

Questions Arise Over Red Light Cameras

Lakeland city vehicles seen apparently violating law, but not cited.

Video from Lakeland's red light cameras doesn't show what three Ledger journalists witnessed in person - city of Lakeland vehicles turning right on red without properly stopping.

No citations were issued in those incidents, according to city records. And video requested from the times when the incidents occurred did not show the vehicles going through the intersection.

The failure to issue citations in those instances reignites questions about whether the red light camera system, installed at five Lakeland intersections in June, is used evenly in enforcing violations and whether city of Lakeland vehicles might be held to a different standard than other drivers.

Here's what happened in the two incidents in question:

Two Ledger photographers were recording unrelated video at North Florida Avenue and Memorial Boulevard when they observed a city vehicle and other cars rolling through a red light at the intersection about 12:20 p.m. July 31.

On Aug. 4, a Ledger reporter saw a Lakeland police car and a Lakeland Electric vehicle turn right on red without stopping at the same intersection about 12:30 p.m.

None of the vehicles were using emergency lights.

A Ledger reporter Thursday asked the red light camera operator, American Traffic Solutions of Arizona, about what was observed. A company representative took the questions but did not respond with answers after subsequent phone calls and an e-mail.

The company installed and operates the cameras under a contract with the city. It sends video of instances that appear to be violations to the Lakeland Police Department, which reviews the video and decides whether citations should be issued.

The company is responsible for mailing citations and collecting the money. The city operates a review process through which vehicle owners can appeal.

As of Dec. 2, 16,619 citations had been issued since the cameras started being used June 1.

The city, which owns 1,116 vehicles, has received two citations. One was for a Lakeland police car and one was for a Lakeland Fire Department vehicle, city spokesman Kevin Cook said. The drivers cited were required to pay their own fines.

Six other citations involved Lakeland police cars answering emergency calls, and those were dismissed.

Cook said he doesn't think the two citations issued to city vehicles - far less than 1 percent of the total - is suspicious.

"To me, it doesn't seem weird because we instill in our employees that there are cameras out there and you will pay for it if you get caught," he said. "It doesn't take much to find that there have been 150 stories in the newspaper and on the news that they are out here."

The Ledger attempted for months to get video from the intersection where the reporter and photographers observed what appeared to be violations by city vehicles.

Numerous public records requests in August and September were initially denied by ATS, the camera company. ATS then charged The Ledger $250 for a copy of video footage it said was taken between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. on each of the two days requested, July 31 and Aug. 4.

The video received raised more questions than it answered.

"There were no violations captured on 7/31/09 at N. Florida Ave.," Mary Jo Hopper, ATS's client services liaison, wrote to The Ledger in October. As a result, no video footage was sent by the camera to ATS. Cameras are programmed to send footage only if it includes possible violations, according to ATS.

In the August incident, ATS sent a CD that compiled 124 video clips recorded throughout the day and forwarded by the camera to the company for review.

The cameras capture 12-second video clips if sensors detect what are suspected to be violations. Those clips are sent to ATS for a first review before they are forwarded to the city for the final say.

But the clips received by The Ledger contained no time or date stamps to show what day or time the footage was shot, and the video showed both day and night scenes, which does not match The Ledger's records request.

The video also showed multiple video clips of the same infraction recorded at different time intervals.

The company has provided no explanation of the footage or the apparent differences between what was requested and what was received.

Also, The Ledger asked an ATS spokesperson whether it was unusual for such a low number of citations to be issued to city vehicles.

The company did not respond to that question or to requests for numbers of city vehicles cited in other cities where it has cameras.

Lakeland Mayor Buddy Fletcher and others at the city have been adamant in saying the cameras were installed to improve safety and not to generate money.

Drivers have been cited for nearly $2.1 million in red light violations as of Wednesday, and the city had collected $1.2 million in violations, Cook said.

The city has not spent any of the money collected. It sits in a bank account until two lawsuits against the city and the camera company have been resolved, he said.

City Manager Doug Thomas recently said money from red light cameras will go, at least in part, to help offset potential budget cuts at the Police Department.

The lawsuits filed against the city allege the cameras violate state traffic laws and laws governing how courts operate.

More county-owned than city-owned vehicles have been cited using the cameras. Eight citations have gone to the Polk County Sheriff's Office and three to county vehicles from other departments.

County employees are required to pay their own fines.

The Sheriff's Office requires that and adds stricter guidelines, said Chief Gary Hester, including a letter of guidance put into personnel files.

Of the sheriff's employees cited, six were detectives, one a court process server and one a worker driving an animal control vehicle, he said. One of the detectives, who was cited in September, received the notification too late, which voided the fine under the city's ordinance.

But that didn't mean the detective didn't have to pay up. Hester gave the detective two options: Give $125 to a charity or be suspended without pay for $125 of time. The detective opted for the donation.

"The whole purpose was equal discipline," Hester said. "I don't want that person to slide because of a technicality.

"It's dangerous to run red lights. And it's dangerous for cops to run red lights."


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