Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

'Public opinion' factored into city ending red-light cameras

DANIEL CHACÓN and JAKOB RODGERS Updated: October 18, 2011 at 12:00 am

A week after hailing them as a high-tech way to make the city’s streets safer, Colorado Springs police said Tuesday they plan to stop using cameras to catch red-light runners by the end of the year.

Interim Police Chief Pete Carey informed the City Council of the decision during a work session on the Police Department's 2012 budget.

"The jury's still out," Carey said on whether the cameras cut down on accidents at the four intersections where they had been installed: Bijou Street and Nevada Avenue; Circle Drive and Platte Avenue; Murray Road and Platte; and Oro Blanco Drive and Barnes Road.

Carey said the Police Department made the decision to discontinue the cameras, but added he received “some input from the mayor’s office as well as the chief of staff.”

Carey also said the Police Department will quit taking part in DUI checkpoints.

“We’re going to try a different process that may prove to be a little more effective: saturation patrols and high visibility enforcement," Carey said. "So we’re not getting out of the DUI business. We’re getting out of the DUI checkpoint business."

Carey's comments came a week after city officials and police officers touted the red-light cameras as making the four intersections safer by reducing red-light runners who commonly cause broadside wrecks.

According to the report, violations steadily dropped at three of the four intersections in the  year since police began issuing tickets using the high-definition cameras on Oct. 16, 2010.

Overall, red-light violations at the four intersections where cameras were placed have dropped from 1,520 in October 2010 to 1,040 in August 2011, according to American Traffic Solutions, the company that manages the cameras.

Some residents have criticized the cameras as simply a way to generate more fines without improving safety, and Carey said "public opinion" factored into his decision. He also said the the program has been taking up too much manpower for a department facing the loss of nine-and-a-half full-time positions in 2012.

Fines collected from red-light runners cover the $5,200 it costs every month to use the equipment. But Carey said the cost of employing two officers to review the photos and a half-time sergeant's position to supervise was too expensive.

"That’s over $200,000 for that program that we hopefully will put it in a more urgent need area," Carey said. "Right now, there’s lot of issues downtown. If I had 2½ officers I could plug into some downtown problems, it would be highly, highly beneficial for everybody."

“It wasn’t costing us,” he said. “I just have a higher need for those officers.”

Police have previously called the cameras "force multiplers" that free up officers who would otherwise be parked at an intersection watching for violators.

“That’s a secondary benefit of these cameras,” said Lt. Sean Mandel, a member of the traffic enforcement team, in early October. “They’re able to enforce traffic laws when we don’t have the manpower to do that at all the lights.”

It's up for debate whether City Council will decide the fate of the program, which proved lucrative for the city. The cameras brought in $175,731 in fines through March, though more recent revenue data has not been released.

At the meeting, council President Scott Hente asked for the accident numbers, but Carey did not have them immediately available. Hente said since the council approved the cameras, the council should have a say in discontinuing them.

The Police Department recently extended the contract for the cameras through the end of the year.

DUI checkpoints have been controversial as well, challenged by some opponents claiming they violate the Fourth Amendment prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures. The checkpoints, which have been held sporadically throughout the summer months, have been upheld as constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.

During the most recent sobriety checkpoint in early September, police stopped 679 motorists and arrested two for allegedly driving drunk.

Police say the red-light cameras are “force multipliers,” freeing up officers for other duties who otherwise would be parked at an intersection watching for violators.

“That’s a secondary benefit of these cameras,” said Lt. Sean Mandel, a member of the traffic enforcement team. “They’re able to enforce traffic laws when we don’t have the manpower to do that at all the lights.”

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