FEATURED IN TECHNOLOGY AND COMMUNICATIONS
Illinois roadways, at least in the Chicago metropolitan area, are poised to be a whole lot safer in 2010.
Illinois Senate Bill 1852 (SB1852), proposed in February 2009 by State Sen. Terry Link (D-Lake Bluff), if passed will allow state, county, and municipal governments In Chicago and the six counties of its metro area to introduce speed enforcement cameras along roadways to photograph and ticket lead-footed drivers. On the heels of, and modeled after, the popular (at least with lawmakers and bureaucrats) red-light cameras, they will photograph the license plates of vehicles exceeding a specific speed and cause a citation to be sent to the registered owner. Fines will be $100 and no one will be assessed any points on their license as it is the car ticketed and not a specific driver.
And in Chicago, Alderman Ed Burke (D-Perpetual Blowhard) has proposed expanding the role of the city's already expansive red-light camera enforcement program to include adding developing technology to detect and fine the owners of uninsured cars operating on city streets. As with SB1852, a fine would be assessed the registered owner but no specific driver would earn points against his or her license.
With both of these proposed measures, outrage was expressed by those who believe claims made by politicians that improving safety, and not raising revenue, is the purpose of camera-enforcement are disingenuous. Somehow, the citizenry of Northeastern Illinois have come to believe their elected officials are looking for ever more ways to subtly pick their pockets in the guise of safety. Of course, it did not help that Ald. Burke publicly pointed out in his proposal that the city stood to make in excess of $10 million just by adding the uninsured vehicle technology to those already caught for red light violations. An executive with the company that would provide the technology estimated the city stood to make ten times that amount if it expanded the enforcement to ticket any cars captured with the technology. Note to those unfamiliar with Chicago politicians: they have no interest in a subtle pick pocketing; they prefer to look you in the eye, tell you they are going to mug you, and then do it.
The topic of law enforcement via camera is not unique to Chicago or Illinois. In researching this topic, it became clear the reasoning and justification for using the technology available to us is pretty consistent across the country. It also became clear the public response is pretty consistent, too. While there are some who do like and support the use of camera enforcement, their voices tend to be drowned out by those whose response ranges from skeptical to incensed. Upon finding out just how much money can be made from a single red-light camera (one in Schaumburg, a Chicago suburb, netted $1 million in three months!), suspicions that money is the motivator become cemented even if improved safety is achieved.
Improved safety + increased revenue... What is wrong with that?
On the surface, this topic should be a no-brainer. As police officers, especially if we work patrol or traffic, improving highway safety and holding violators accountable are primary responsibilities. We know we cannot be everywhere, and we further know most violations go unchecked. If we can hold people accountable for misbehavior and make a buck for the government in this tough economy doing it, then why not?
Well, let us submit the following reason why not; The ever-expanding use of cameras as a principal means of locating and citing traffic violators is ultimately harmful to the profession of law enforcement, diminishes public trust in governmental bodies, and fails to recognize potential long-term consequences in favor of short-term gains. The end does not justify the means. Not by a long shot.
The above statement is somewhat strong in the face of recent practices adopted by many of the government bodies that employ us, and administered by our departments. We certainly do not expect everyone to agree with it. But read on and consider the following consequences of those practices:
Our local, national, and world economies have recently taken a hit, and this is being felt by cities, counties, and states facing significant revenue deficits. It must be tempting for policymakers to view the revenues red-light and speed cameras can generate. The companies that supply the cameras pull no punches as they peddle their products. You will make money. A lot of money, and fast.
But the citizens from whom that money is extracted may be hurting, too. Most of us have felt the effects of a weakened economy, or know someone who has, and cannot help but see the arrival of a camera generated ticket in the mail days or weeks after the offense occurred as anything besides a shameless money grab. Of course they should not have run a red light, or rolled a right-on-red, or exceeded the posted speed limit, but let he without sin cast the first stone.
Diminished respect for law enforcement
The job of reviewing and ultimately deciding whether a citation is issued will almost certainly fall upon someone within the police department with enforcement jurisdiction over the area the alleged violation occurred. It will not matter to the recipient of the ticket that the decision to install the camera was that of someone elected; they will blame the cops who actually issued the ticket.
And yes, we know, it is our job to hold people accountable to the law and that job is not about winning a popularity contest. Got it. Nonetheless, earning a degree of respect and trust within the community is also important. Burning bridges with an angry public is not how to go about earning respect and trust.
A camera wields no discretion. I have had opportunity to view a few violations for which camera tickets were issued. Frankly, there are some that only the most anal retentive among us would dream of stopping if they witnessed it on patrol. Do you think the public does not know this as well?
Diminished trust in government
As Americans, a healthy distrust of government as part of our national DNA. Our nation has shed much blood against repressive, controlling regimes in the defense of freedom. It is also a nation for which the term Big Brother holds great meaning. We instinctively dislike the ideas of cameras following us, recording us, reporting our actions to the authorities for punishment. And yet, our elected officials forget 1984 was a cautionary tale and not a blueprint!
How far will we take camera enforcement? Red lights and speed cameras now. Insurance tracking soon. How about placing cameras at cockpit level to look inside to make sure everyone is buckled up? Or perhaps at license plate level to check registration stickers? When do we start to get scared of ourselves?
Marginalization of police officers
Law enforcement is an art best practiced face-to-face. A traffic stop is an interaction between cop and citizen. It can be clinical and businesslike or personal and nuanced, but the interaction always has the potential for far more than that of the impersonal mailed citation.
If you have worked the street for more than a few weeks you have learned that traffic enforcement is more than just traffic enforcement. Drunks and suspended drivers are arrested, warrants are served, guns and drugs seized, intelligence gathered, and your work is made highly visible. Along the way traffic safety is promoted. Understand that most politicians and the public have no idea of the complexity and potential in a simple traffic stop. They drive by your stop and see someone getting a speeding ticket, with no idea you are talking to a parolee with a warrant and coke in his pocket who is about to become very talkative to avoid going back to prison.
The risk in this is that increasing the number of cameras doing what the politicians think we are doing may lead to a reduction in actual flesh and blood cops who understand high impact patrol. If revenue can be raised and costs cut, will the politicians see cops as an expense to trim wherever possible? Will their infatuation with enforcement through technology inadvertently lead to compromised safety of their communities and police departments? And will we as citizens become numb to ever-increasing surveillance for the sake of safety, that we begin to lose the vague distrust of government that keeps us vigilant against abuse?
We know not everyone will agree with the premise of this article, and we invite your thoughts and commentary. To what degree does camera-based enforcement have a role in society, what should the limits on that role be? These are questions we need to ask ourselves and be willing to debate, as cameras will likely be pervasive in future law enforcement.