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L.A. Police Commission votes to kill red-light camera program

June 7, 2011 |  2:58 pm

A red light camera at La Brea Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles Police Commission Tuesday rejected a proposal from police officials to continue the city’s red light traffic-camera program, a move that would shut down the controversial cameras in days unless the City Council opts to strip the commission of its authority on the issue.

Click here to see an interactive graphic on red light video camerasThe unanimous vote by the five-member panel that oversees the LAPD came as somewhat of a surprise to police officials, who went into the meeting armed with a recommendation that the commission award a new three- or five-year contract to the company that has been operating the 32 cameras scattered throughout the city for years.

Instead of discussing the merits of that company’s service over others, however, commissioners returned to a long-running debate over the cameras that has played out at several meetings in recent months and focused on the basic questions of whether they do any good and are cost effective.  Throughout, police officials have argued that the cameras have led to a significant decrease in the number of traffic accidents and fatalities at the intersections. 

Those claims were looked at with skepticism by members of the commission, who also questioned the legitimacy of the tickets that are issued to drivers captured by the cameras running red lights.  Since local courts do not pursue people who refuse to pay the tickets, which typically run more than $400, the camera program essentially was a "voluntary citation program.  There’s no teeth in it, no enforcement," said Commissioner Alan Skobin. 

In light of the court’s position on the camera-issued tickets, Skobin questioned the LAPD’s practice of sending unpaid tickets to a collection agency.

"We have to ask, what is the benefit to the public?  What is the downside?" said Commissioner Debra Wong Yang.  “And I’m not convinced from looking at the numbers that these cameras work."

Those sentiments were echoed by several members of the public who attended the meeting to urge the commission to do away with the cameras, which seem to trigger a seemingly boundless amount of frustration and anger among many drivers in Los Angeles, who rant on Internet chat rooms and at cocktail parties about the technology’s unfairness, usefulness and safety.

“It’s something that angers the crap out of me every time I get in my car,” said Hollywood resident Christina Heller, 27.  "These cameras remove our fundamental right in this country to confront our accuser.  And they do not do anything to improve safety."

Executives from American Traffic Solutions, the company recommended to win the contract, made a last-ditch bid to change the commission's mind, arguing that shutting down the cameras would result in increased accidents and injuries.

The City Council, which directed the LAPD to seek bidders for a new contract, could take the unusual step of stripping the commission of its authority on this issue and decide for itself whether to continue with the cameras. If the council does not act within 10 days, police officials said, the cameras will be shut down.

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Clarification: An earlier version of this post inaccurately stated that Skobin had suggested the department’s practice of sending unpaid tickets to a collection agency was illegal.

-- Joel Rubin at LAPD headquarters
Follow Joel Rubin’s coverage of the LAPD on Twitter @JoelRubin

Photo: A traffic camera at La Brea Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles. Credit: Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times

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