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LAPD panel voices support for red-light cameras despite shortcomings [Updated]

December 14, 2010 |  2:57 pm

The Los Angeles Police Commission voiced support Tuesday for the city's red-light camera system, despite learning that there is little consequence for violators who ignore the citations.

In a briefing to the civilian panel that oversees the police department, LAPD Assistant Chief Michel Moore said the department considers the red-light cameras effective tools in combating lead-footed drivers.

The cameras installed at 32 intersections in 2006 came under fire in September when City Controller Wendy Greuel questioned in a report whether they reduce accidents.

She also found the city was taking a loss on the cameras because operating costs outweighed revenue from tickets.

The cameras are automatically triggered when a driver runs a red light. The resulting photographs of the car's license plate and driver are reviewed by LAPD officers, who decide whether to issue a citation that typically comes with a fine of more than $450.

On the heels of Greuel's report, the City Council instructed the LAPD to evaluate the program and report back "on possible recommendations to terminate this program."

Moore, who was accompanied by Sgt. Matthew MacWillie, defended the cameras, saying the LAPD's review of the intersections tallied a 63% decrease in red-light-related traffic accidents.

Before the cameras went in, five people died in accidents related to red lights, while there have been no fatalities since, Moore added.

The number of citations issued at the 32 intersections for red-light violations has climbed dramatically, quadrupling from 14,000 to 59,000 annually, the LAPD review concluded.

Moore did not dispute Greuel's finding that the cameras cost more to upkeep than they generate in ticket revenue. But he raised eyebrows when he placed blame for this on the Los Angeles County Superior Court. He said he was told by court officials that violators caught on camera are not aggressively pursued.

Approximately 56,000 red-light citations issued from the city's photo-patrolled intersections remain unresolved by the court, Moore said. The high number is a result of the court's decision to not alert the Department of Motor Vehicles when someone fails to respond to a citation.

The DMV is authorized to place a hold on a person's license in such cases, and many other counties in the state that do pass on drivers' names to the agency have a far lower delinquency rate, Moore said.

The court does send outstanding citations to a private collection agency, but "there's absolutely no consequence" for someone who ignores the letters the agency sends seeking payment. Moore said. The city would receive between $7 million and $11 million if the fines were collected, Moore estimated.

Court officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Moore said the court officials he spoke with expressed concerns that the citations, which are mailed to the registered owner of the photographed car, fall short of what is needed to legally compel someone to appear in court or to pay a fine.

Critics of traffic cameras say there is often no way to prove the car owner actually received the mailed citation or that the owner was the person driving the vehicle at the time.

[Updated, 4:14 p.m.: Mary Hearn, acting director of public information for the court system, defended the cout's decision not to have the DMV put holds on drivers’ licenses, saying the policy “complies with the law” and that it is an “issue of fairness,” since the registered owner of a car may not be the one responsible for running the red light.

Hearn also explained the court’s process in more detail:  Tickets for the red-light violations are $476 or $540 if the driver opts to attend traffic school to avoid increases in car insurance premiums.  When a driver misses the deadline to pay or appear in court, the court mails a notice alerting the driver that they have 10 days to resolve the citation before an additional $300 fine will be assessed. If the driver again fails to handle the citation, the court forwards the name to a collection agency.]

The commission voted unanimously to approve the LAPD's report on the cameras and will now send it on to the council. The department is currently reviewing proposals from companies competing for the contract to operate the cameras for the city for the next several years.


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-- Joel Rubin at LAPD headquarters
Follow Joel Rubin on Twitter @joelrubin