City officials are thinking about installing automated red-light enforcement cameras — those things that take pictures of cars running red lights and issue their owners traffic tickets — at two troublesome intersections. But Common Council Majority Leader Tom Hoffay (D-Ward 2) said that he’ll oppose any plan involving a red-light camera company involved in an alleged bribery scandal in Chicago.
Since this spring, members of the Common Council’s Public Safety and General Government Committee have been in contact with Redflex Traffic Systems, Inc. The Phoenix, Ariz.-based company installs and maintains automated traffic enforcement systems in 24 states and in Canada. The red-light enforcement system proposed in Kingston is typical of the company’s operations.
According to Kingston Police Chief Egidio Tinti, who met with a Redflex representative, the company would install the system for free. The cameras provide real-time monitoring at busy intersections. When a vehicle runs the light or makes an illegal turn, the camera generates data, including three photos of the vehicle passing through the intersection and a short video clip of the violation. The data is automatically transferred to a Redflex facility where employees review the images to determine if a violation occurred. A KPD officer would then review all of the suspected violations and authorize a final list of summonses.
“The bottom line is, the final decision is always made by a local law enforcement official,” said Redflex spokeswoman Jody Ryan. “We send the data, but they make the determination.”
The plan under consideration in Kingston, which would require authorization from the state legislature, calls for violators to receive a $50 fine for a non-moving violation, meaning those hit with the tickets would not receive points on their driver’s licenses. The citation would be sent to the registered owner of the car. Recipients could either pay the fine or contest the ticket in city court. Violators would also have the option of providing evidence that someone else was driving the vehicle.
Redflex, Tinti said, would receive a set amount of money from the violations each month, enough to make the operation fiscally viable for the company. Anything in excess of that amount would go to the city. The company would also reserve the right to move the system to another location in the event the original site became unprofitable. According to Tinti, the only expense of city resources would be assigning an officer to spend an hour or so each day reviewing alleged violations. Tinti added that monitored intersections would be well marked with signage to let driver’s know about the system.
“This is about changing driver behavior, just like having a marked patrol car at an intersection,” said Tinti. “There’s no ambush, no secrecy, we’re not trying to get people to go through the light and then say, ‘Ha ha, here’s your ticket.”
According to a test carried out by Redflex at two Kingston intersections in May, there is plenty of room for improvement in local driving habits. The feasibility study was conducted over a 12-hour period on May 30. Redflex cameras monitored intersections at Broadway and Albany Avenue and Schwenk Drive and Washington Avenue. At the Broadway intersection, the cameras caught 21 drivers going straight through the light and another 48 making right turns without slowing down. Another eight drivers were caught on tape making illegal left turns. At the Washington Avenue intersection, the cameras logged a whopping 404 red light violations during the same 12-hour period. The cameras also captured a traffic accident at one of the test sites.
“It was very clear that there’s an issue there,” said Tinti. “And we don’t have the manpower to put a car there 24 hours a day.”
In Alabama, Phenix City installed a single Redflex red light camera at a busy intersection back in April. City officials are waiting on state approval to install eight more along an accident plagued highway bypass. Phenix City Police Chief Raymond J. Smith said that while it was too early to quantify the impact on safety, the cameras had already been used effectively by police to investigate two traffic accidents which were captured on film. Smith said Phenix City detectives had also used the cameras to investigate a pair of homicides by reviewing footage to corroborate witness statements and look for suspect vehicles.
Smith said he’s confident that the cameras would also, eventually change driver behavior and reduce infractions at the intersection.
“I hope we’ve sold the community on the fact that this is not about revenue, it’s about public safety,” said Smith. “We’ve always made money on writing citations, that’s how we offset the cost of emergency response. When you have people out there continually breaking the law and we have to go scoop them off the highway, that costs us money.”
Phenix City is one of about 50 contracts that Redflex has entered into or renewed since last year when a serious ethics scandal rocked the company. According to an investigation commissioned by Redflex in the wake of a damning series of articles in the Chicago Tribune, between 2003 and 2010 the company’s executive vice president one of its consultants lavished meals, hotel stays, golf games and other perks on a Chicago official charged with administering the city’s automated enforcement programs. The improper gifts, which the investigation found totaled about $20,000, were then written off on Redflex officials’ expense accounts. The same investigation found that the company’s CEO knew about the scheme, its chief financial officer intentionally minimized the scope of a 2010 inquiry sparked by a whistleblower complaint and company officials made misleading statements to the Chicago Board of Ethics in 2012. The revelations led Chicago to terminate contracts with Redflex while other municipalities across the country backed away from the company.
No one has been criminally charged in the affair despite a conclusion in Redflex’s own report that their executives conduct could reasonably be described as “bribery.” Since then, however, most of the company’s top leadership, including all of those implicated in the Chicago scandal have been replaced. The company has also instituted new compliance procedures and ethics training for employees.
“We are a new company,” said CEO Robert DeVincenzi in a prepared statement. “In leadership, in operations, in culture.”
But Hoffay said that the Chicago scandal should be enough to put Redflex out of the running for Kingston.
“Obviously this company is deeply tarnished now and a number of communities across the company have turned down their applications,” said Hoffay. “I’m amazed that we would even be talking to them.”
But Council Minority Leader Deborah Brown (R-Ward 9) said that she was serious about bringing automated traffic enforcement to Kingston. Brown said that she was besieged by complaints from constituents about speeding on residential streets. The city, she pointed out, also lacks a dedicated traffic enforcement division or the manpower to create one. Brown added that she was satisfied that Redflex had made enough positive changes since the Chicago scandal to at least be considered for the job.
“It’s the kind of thing that can happen to any company, it’s a big operation so they’re on the radar,” said Brown. “If it was an ongoing issue coming up year after year I would say there might be a problem, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.”