City ponders red light cameras

  • John Santana<br>Mill Creek Enterprise editor
  • Monday, March 3, 2008 11:59am

As if a possible accident wasn’t enough of a reason to keep drivers from running red lights, pretty soon those who do could be photographed in the act and cited without a police presence.

The city of Mill Creek has begun looking at costs and companies to provide red light camera enforcement at certain intersections and school zones in town. A majority of the City Council on Feb. 13 gave its blessing to going forward with the cameras.

“I would love to put something in place as soon as possible,” Mayor Donna Michelson said.

Two council members, however, expressed Big Brother concerns about cameras being used for more than red light enforcement.

“It does scare me where it could lead,” Rosemary Bennetts said.

State law currently limits them to school speed zone violations, stoplights and railroad crossings.

“My only reservation is what it could lead to,” Councilman Terry Ryan said. “The laws could change.”

Police Sgt. Jim Durante, meanwhile, tried quelling those fears, saying that the cameras are designed to photograph cars and license plates, and that they can only be used for red light enforcement, not for spying or searching for other infractions. Also, the images are destroyed once any fine has been paid.

“So we’re not building a Big Brother file, in other words,” Durante said.

If Mill Creek adopts the cameras, it would become one of the few cities in Washington state to use them. Currently, Seattle, Auburn, Bonney Lake and Lakewood use red light cameras. Lynnwood, Mountlake Terrace and Everett are close to implementing them, and Renton is considering adopting them.

The cameras are one part of a citywide crime response plan that police chief Bob Crannell will present to the council on March 6, but the council was so interested in the topic that it was addressed separately. Final say on using red light cameras rests with the council.

The goal of the red light cameras is compliance, Durante said. In addition, the police department is looking for a way to cut down on the number of traffic accidents around town.

Last year, police responded to 293 auto accidents, about 41 percent of which involved injuries, Durante said. Forty-four percent of all accidents in Mill Creek took place at four intersections (see separate story). Figures on how many of those accidents were caused by drivers running red lights were not available.

“I think this is a way to save police resources,” city manager Steve Nolen said. “It’s also more even-handed.”

Durante said one advantage of camera enforcement is that it eliminates real or perceived “profiling,” such as racial profiling, although the issue has not come up in Mill Creek.

To operate two cameras a month at one intersection would cost between $3,500 and $4,500 per month, Durante said. In order to financially break-even, the cameras would need to catch three violations per day. Companies that monitor such intersections are paid based on the costs of watching the intersections, not on fines.

“This way there is no chance for cash-register justice,” Durante said.

Because of the cost, the cameras will not be installed citywide, but most likely at the intersections where the most accidents happen (see separate story). The city is also proposing having camera enforcement for school zones to nab speeders.

Before that’s done, however, the council may review the city’s school zones and try to come up with one consistent policy, which is something Ryan argued for. Councilman Mark Bond suggested that school zones should always be in effect because children will ride bikes to school grounds to play on weekends, when classes aren’t in session.

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