Tag Archives: traffic camera

Law enforcement officials refuse to identify who installed ‘mystery’ cameras on utility poles throughout St. Lawrence County

Law enforcement officials refuse to identify who installed ‘mystery’ cameras on utility poles throughout St. Lawrence County

By CRAIG FREILICH

Some area law enforcement officials apparently know who is installing the mysterious camera boxes on utility poles around St. Lawrence County, but they’re not saying who it is.

The boxes, with a window for cameras to peer out of, have popped up in Norwood, Raymondville, DeKalb Junction, Waddington, Massena and Canton, according to witnesses.

Law enforcement officials at local, state and federal agencies agree the boxes contain license plate readers that take snapshots, and are not video cameras that send live feeds. But none of them are willing to identify what agency the cameras belong to and who is operating them.

The cameras appear to be identical to license plate readers advertised on web sites as containing a visible light camera, infrared camera and an infrared light source. The cameras can read plates on passing vehicles, record the plate number, date, time and location, send it to a database for storage, and alert law enforcement if it detects a vehicle or driver being sought.

They are similar to vehicle-mounted units that St. Lawrence County Sheriff Kevin Wells says his department has been using for 10 years.

But about the pole-mounted cameras, Sheriff Wells says, “They are not mine.”

A spokesperson from National Grid, the major electric distributor in the region, said the company periodically agrees to requests from police agencies for placement of such devices on utility poles, but they are not permitted to reveal any details about whose cameras they are or where they might be.

National Grid’s Virginia Limmiatis, a senior media relations representative in Syracuse, said their policy “authorizes the user to plug into our system. Under the agreement they are required to install and maintain their own equipment.” The user will get a bill for a usage fee. But she couldn’t say whose cameras these are.

Meanwhile, a box Massena Electric employees found on one of their poles was turned over to the Massena Police Department. “We didn’t even know it was a camera,” said Superintendent Andrew McMahon. “We called the village police to pick it up.”

Massena Police Chief Timmy Currier said he returned it to the owner, but wouldn’t say how he knew who the owner was, nor would he say who he gave it to.

A Border Patrol operations officer in the sector station in Swanton, Vt., said he had no knowledge about the use of the cameras. He referred questions to an investigator apparently associated with Franklin County law enforcement, who said he knew about other cameras, but didn’t know about deployment of license plate readers, and wouldn’t discuss it further.

State Police Lt. Kevin Boyea of Troop B said he has no knowledge of the cameras, their origin or their purpose.

However, not all police agencies were aware of the boxes. After discussing it at a periodic meeting of police chiefs from around the county this morning, Wells said, “none of the local chiefs were ever contacted about the existence of these cameras.”

Several of the law enforcement representatives said use of cameras – license plate readers and surveillance cameras – is increasing, and while we might not be used to such scrutiny in the North Country, each cited reports about how people living in cities should expect to be on camera at any given moment.

“Any time you travel in an urban area, you will see lots of cameras,” said Sheriff Wells. Many, he said, are designed to record drivers who go through red lights, and there are many other uses. “They’re designed to assist police. They are a tool for investigators.”

But any law enforcement agency that wants data stored by the cameras can have access to it if they need it and can show why. But they can’t tell us who they send their requests to.

McMahon, the superintendent at Massena Electric Department, said one of his crews found a box on one of their poles and took it down because “it was in the electric space,” the top tier of wires on the pole above the telephone and cable TV wires, and whoever put it there had taken a chance with electrocution. He said they had never received a request or been informed about its placement.

McMahon said whoever put it there might have thought the pole belonged to National Grid, and that it wouldn’t be the first time a mistake like that had happened. He said National Grid themselves had once replaced a damaged Massena Electric pole without knowing it.

Red Light……Green Light….Red Light! Gotcha!

Challenges to red light cameras span US
Studies touting safety benefits sometimes contradictory, incomplete

By Alex Johnson Reporter
msnbc.com

In more than 500 cities and towns in 25 states, silent sentries keep watch over intersections, snapping photos and shooting video of drivers who run red lights. The cameras are on the job in metropolises like Houston and Chicago and in small towns like Selmer, Tenn., population 4,700, where a single camera setup monitors traffic at the intersection of U.S. Highway 64 and Mulberry Avenue.

One of the places is Los Angeles, where, if the Police Commission gets its way, the red light cameras will have to come down in a few weeks. That puts the nation’s second-largest city at the leading edge of an anti-camera movement that appears to have been gaining traction across the country in recent weeks.

A City Council committee is considering whether to continue the city’s camera contract over the objections of the commission, which voted unanimously to remove the camera system, which shoots video of cars running red lights at 32 of the city’s thousands of intersections. The private Arizona company that installed the cameras and runs the program mails off $446 tickets to their registered owners.

The company’s contract will expire at the end of July if the council can’t reach a final agreement to renew it.

Opponents of the cameras often argue that they are really just revenue engines for struggling cities and towns, silently dinging motorists for mostly minor infractions. And while guidelines issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration say revenue is an invalid justification for the use of the eyes in the sky (see box at right), camera-generated citations do spin off a lot of money in many cities — the nearly 400 cameras in Chicago, for example, generated more than $64 million in 2009, the last year for which complete figures were available.

Los Angeles hasn’t been so lucky.

The city gets only a third of the revenue generated by camera citations, many of which go unpaid anyway because judges refuse to enforce them, the city controller’s office reported last year. It found in an audit that if you add it all up, operating the cameras has cost $1 million to $1.5 million a year more than they’ve generated in fines, even as “the program has not been able to document conclusively an increase in public safety.”

Federal camera guidelines

The Federal Highway Traffic Safety Administration says red light cameras and other automated traffic controls should:

• Reduce the frequency of violations.

• Maximize safety improvements with the most efficient use of resources.

• Maximize public awareness and approval.

• Maximize perceived likelihood that violators will be caught.

• Enhance the capabilities of traffic law enforcement and supplement, rather than replace, traffic stops by officers.

• Emphasize deterrence rather than punishment.

• Emphasize safety rather than revenue generation.

• Maintain program transparency by educating the public about program operations and be prepared to explain and justify decisions that affect program operations.

Source: Speed Enforcement Camera Systems Operational Guidelines, Federal Highway Traffic Safety Administration


Another common refrain from critics is that the devices replace a human officer’s judgment and discretion with the cold, unforgiving algorithms of a machine.

“You’ve got to treat people fairly,”
said Jay Beeber, executive director of Safer Streets LA, who has led the campaign to kill the city’s red light cameras. “You have to give people a fighting chance that you’re not going to penalize them for a minor lapse of judgment.”

Paul Kubosh, a lawyer who has led a similar anti-camera fight in Houston, called the camera systems “a scam on the public,” because they “are writing tickets that police officers don’t write.”

There’s a fierce court battle going on in Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city, after a U.S. district judge this week ruled that a measure voters approved to shut down the city’s more than 70 cameras was invalid on procedural grounds.

Could hundreds of lives be saved?

More than a dozen large studies over the past decade have concluded that the cameras reduce accidents and injuries. The most recent, published in February by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, crunched 10 years of federal traffic data for the 99 largest U.S. cities — 14 of which now deploy cameras — and calculated that had all 99 installed the devices, 815 lives would have been saved from 2004 through 2008.

We still have thousands of people who die,” said Adrian Lund, the Insurance Institute’s president. “We look at where and how that’s happening, and one of the most dangerous (locations) is intersections.”

Citing reports like that, 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.

And yet, in addition to the votes in Los Angeles and Houston:

The Albuquerque, N.M., City Council voted this month to let residents vote on the future of the city’s 20 red light cameras in October. (City lawyers are still weighing whether the vote would have any official effect.)
In May, a Missouri circuit judge issued a preliminary ruling saying the measure that authorized St. Louis’ 51 cameras was illegally enacted.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam said he would sign a bill the Legislature passed last month to limit — though not ban outright — localities’ use of cameras at intersections.
The North Carolina Senate voted in April to ban cameras; the measure awaits House action.
The Florida House passed a bill last month to ban red light cameras; the measure failed in the Senate.
A Superior Court judge last week struck down the law that enacted use of cameras in Spokane, Wash., agreeing that citations generated by the cameras were invalid because they were not personally signed by a police officer.

Often, the cameras lead to fines — and depending on the jurisdiction, costly points on drivers’ records — for borderline infractions like failing to come to a complete stop before making a right turn. (That infraction makes up two-thirds of the citations issued at camera-monitored intersections in Los Angeles, even though it rarely leads to an accident, the controller’s audit reported.)

Other common complaints are that the automated citations violate due process and equal protection rights — often, there’s no officer to confront in court — and invade motorists’ privacy.
Challenges to red light cameras

Besides questions about the reliability of safety research and the use of cameras as revenue generators, challenges to the devices have raised these issues:

Due process and equal protection. Defendants have argued that enforcement is selective because not all violators receive tickets, that assuming the driver is also the owner shifts the burden of proof from prosecutors to defendants, that different punishments for tickets issued by a machine and by an officer violate the 14th Amendment, that delays in processing and sending out tickets violate due process protections and that warning signs are frequently unclear or incorrectly placed.

Search and seizure. At least two lawsuits have argued that issuing a citation based on a photograph amounts to an unconstitutional seizure of the vehicle.

Privacy. While some anti-camera advocates argue that the cameras are an invasion of privacy, no such challenges have been raised in court, according to research by Carlos Sun, a lawyer and engineering professor at the University of Missouri, who writes: “Driving is a regulated activity on public roads. By obtaining a license, a motorist agrees to abide by certain rules including, for example, to obey traffic signals.”

Sources: msnbc.com research; “Is Robocop a Cash Cow?” (Carlos Sun, University of Missouri, November 2010)

Leslie Blakey, executive director of the nonprofit Campaign to Stop Red Light Running, which advocates for red light cameras, said opponents have fought the devices since they started taking root about a decade ago. She broke the opposition down into two camps: “civil libertarians who resist the imposition of automated enforcement” and “people who got tickets and just don’t like it.”

Beeber, of Safer Streets LA, agreed that “as more people get tickets, they start getting mad about it,” saying: “You start doing that year after year after year and you start generating enough anger in the populace and it gets to the tipping point.”

What’s changed in the last couple of years, Blakey said, is the “ability of people to organize online and form communities and organize actions that are well-orchestrated” on sites like Facebook and Twitter.

These things are becoming more and more useful to a small minority of people who want to mount an action against anything,” she said.

In response, Blakey’s group points to the Insurance Institute study and others like it that conclude the “red light cameras lead to significant decreases in intersection violations and crashes.”

Large studies produce wide range of results
This is where things get muddy, because hard research on the effect of red light cameras in the United States is incomplete and often contradictory.

That includes the widely reported Insurance Institute study from February. Like nearly all other studies over the past decade, that report found a significant decline in deaths from red light accidents in cities that use cameras. But deaths from U.S. roadway accidents of all kinds have dropped significantly — by 13.1 percent — during the study period of 2004 through 2008, data from the Federal Highway Traffic Safety Administration show.

SOURCE