Red means ticket

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September 6, 2004 // UPDATED 3:58 pm - April 25, 2007
By: Scott Russell
Scott Russell

'Photo cops' are coming to automatically ticket red-light runners. Where will they go? How will they work? Are they fair?

The corner of 7th Street & Hennepin Avenue ranks as the city's fourth-most crash-prone intersection during the past year, with 22 accidents. It is a prime candidate for one of the city's first "photo cop" cameras -- an electronic eye to nab red-light runners.

The Minneapolis City Council approved the cameras Sept. 6 on a 11-2 vote, with Councilmembers Dean Zimmermann (6th Ward) and Barret Lane (13th Ward) voting no.

The red-light camera gets activated if a car enters an intersection after the light has changed from yellow. Most camera systems take at least two pictures, some take a third picture of the driver. Systems also record time, date and other relevant information, and may include vehicle speed.

The city would mail tickets to the vehicles' owners. The fine is $130, according to Hennepin County's Web site.

Lane said he had concerns about making the car's owner responsible for the criminal acts of the driver. Proponents note that's how parking tickets work.

Car owners could void the tickets if they can show they were not the vehicle owner at the time, submit a police report stating the car was stolen or have evidence they were not driving the car at the time.

Stand at 7th & Hennepin and ask 10 passersby about the idea, and the reaction is generally favorable.

Gary Gerds, who works for Personnel Decisions International, 45 S. 7th St., supported red-light cameras. He said he saw a motorcyclist killed in his hometown of Stillwater when a driver ran a red light.

Janice Vanlear, who was biking to work on the sidewalk "to be safer," said cameras were a good idea to slow traffic, adding she nearly got clipped once.

Teima Romero, who works for Oppenheimer, Wolff & Donnelly, 45 S. 7th St., said maybe she could support cameras at the busiest intersections to catch offenders. "I don't drive. I take the bus for that reason," she said.

The Council's Public Safety and Regulatory Services Committee passed the photo cop ordinance unanimously Aug. 25. Several Councilmembers say traffic is a constituent hot button. Councilmember Sandy Colvin Roy (12th Ward) said traffic complaints rank second behind airport noise. "It is the issue that comes up over and over again: running red lights and speeding," she said.

Councilmember Dan Niziolek (10th Ward) said his top three constituent issues are public schools, public safety and traffic. For Councilmember Barbara Johnson (4th Ward), the issue is personal. "I had a close call with someone going through a red light," she said. "People are so reckless. We have to have aggressive traffic enforcement in this city."

Prying eyes?

Photo cop opponents say the cameras violate privacy rights and civil liberties, despite assurances from officialdom. Several spoke at an Aug. 25 public hearing on the issue.

Richard Neumeister of St. Paul said the city needed to have a broader discussion about how it would use technology to improve law enforcement.

"If we are going to start using technology, should we have cameras with facial recognition to catch smokers in public places?" he asked rhetorically. "Let's have some guidelines."

Some people interviewed at 7th & Hennepin had similar concerns.

Eyal Grauer, who works for E Predix, 225 S. 6th St., said he worried about the slippery slope -- the possibility that the city would use the cameras for "seeing what everyone is doing at any point in time at any place in the city."

Grauer said he didn't want to promote illegal street activity but preferred the city hire more cops. It would be more expensive, but less "Orwellian," he said.

Gerds rejected the civil rights argument. "If you run a red light, you deserve to have your privacy invaded," he said.

One passerby, who identified himself only as Bart, supported the photo cop plan for a different kind of privacy.

"You get the ticket at home," he said.

"You're not getting pulled over. You're saved the embarrassment."

Lt. Gregory Reinhardt, who has spearheaded photo cop, said the Police Department is not interested in using the cameras to bust jaywalkers or pot smokers. "The harm that they cause is much less than a 4,000- or 6,000-pound vehicle speeding through an intersection," he said.

Still, photo cop cameras could catch more than red-light runners, Reinhardt said. They could catch drivers making illegal right-hand turns on red, where signs prohibit it. With video cameras, the city also could catch hit-and-run drivers or more serious criminals.

"You commit a murder and you go through two to three red lights on the way out, what it does, it puts the car in the area of the event," he said, providing evidence at trial.

12-camera mont/

The city will choose a dozen intersections

to install photo cop, based on accident data, Reinhardt said.

The Public Works Department keeps a list of the 20 most accident-prone intersections. In the past 12 months, the leading intersections ranged from University Avenue Southeast & East Frontage Road (No. 1 with 30 crashes) to Downtown's 2nd Avenue North & 4th Street near Urban Wildlife (No. 20 with 16 crashes).

In addition to 7th & Hennepin and 2nd Avenue North & 4th Street, Downtown had four others intersections on the top crash list from August 2003 to July 2004.

- South 4th Street & 5th Avenue (by the Haaf parking ramp; No. 6 with 20 crashes);

- North 11th Street & Hennepin (by the Mpls. Caf/; No. 9 with 18 crashes);

- North 3rd Street & 1st Avenue (near the Fine Line and Tabu; No. 12 with 17 crashes);

- Groveland & Lyndale avenues south (near St. Mark's, No. 19 with 16 crashes).

The city plans to tell people which 12 intersections have camera mounts, Reinhardt said -- but there is a wrinkle.

"We may only have cameras in six of them at any given time," he said. "Three months down the line, we may move them to a different location within those 12."

The city has not chosen a camera system yet. For instance, it could get digital, 35-mm or video. The Police Department would present more program details to the Public Safety and Regulatory Services Committee Sept. 29, Reinhardt said.

Crashes by the numbers

Supporters see photo cop as a public safety issue. Some detractors, such as Richard Beers of Lynnhurst, see it a city money grab.

The city has approximately 14,000 crashes a year, with 3,100 reported injuries, according to city data. Last year, Minneapolis had 17 traffic fatalities.

Reinhardt estimated 2002 city crashes caused a $131.4 million economic loss, based on a national formula. (The data includes the cost of police response, ambulance runs, hospital service, courts, insurance, auto repairs and the economic loss of victims, he said.)

Beers spoke against the photo cop ordinance at the public hearing, saying there was no proof it reduced accidents or improved traffic flow. "Most motorists who run red lights are distracted, impaired or don't know what is going on. Cameras won't stop that," he said.

The Police Department cannot say for sure how often red-light runners cause crashes, Reinhardt said. It does not have information with that level of detail.

In June, the Police Department took 589 crash reports, which it does for the most serious accidents, he said. They included 299 injuries and one fatality. In 121 crashes, or 21 percent, the investigating officer listed failure to obey a traffic-control light or sign as a contributing factor.

Reinhardt is collecting what he considers photo cop success stories, such as Howard County, Md. According to Howard County's Police Department's Web site, photo cop, as part of a comprehensive effort, reduced red-light running 70 percent and reduced crashes between 21 and 44 percent.

Extend yellow lights

Beers and other opponents recommended the city simply extend the yellow light to reduce crashes.

John Hotvet, a Public Works traffic engineer, said extending the yellow would have at most a short-term benefit, until motorists adjust to it.

Motorists may legally enter an intersection on a yellow light, and motorists getting the new green light are supposed to wait until those cars clear the intersection, Hotvet said. The yellow light's length is based on the cross street's width -- the wider the cross street, the longer the yellow.

Hotvet points to what he calls the "all red" study to argue that longer yellows are no traffic accident panacea.

Iowa State University researchers looked at the safety benefit of having an all-red phase at Minneapolis intersections -- a second or two where drivers in both directions have a red light.

Hotvet said approximately 90 percent of Minneapolis intersections have an all-red phase.

The all-redphase reduced accidents for one year, he said. Then drivers adjusted their behavior and accident rates returned to historic levels.

Some drivers figured out the all-red phase bought them extra time to get through the intersection, and they used it as an extended yellow, knowing the cross street would not get an immediate green light, Hotvet said. The city inferred from that study that longer yellow lights would not reduce accidents long-term.

Legal challenges ahead

City attorney's office staff expects legal challenges, and they could come from several fronts.

Neumeister reminded members of the City Council's Public Safety and Regulatory Services Committee that the city had lobbied the state for a photo cop law -- and the Legislature rejected it.

Minneapolis supported photo cop legislation during at least two sessions, 2001 and 2004, city staff said.

Deputy City Attorney Peter Ginder said the city would have preferred a statewide law but doesn't need one. Ginder points to an informal opinion written April 4, 2001 by Attorney General Mike Hatch. It says that, "a municipality probably could initiate 'photo cop' as it relates to citations issued to people who run a red light."

However, Hatch also issues a strong caution, noting his staff believes it would be best for the city to pass a state law recognizing photo cop as a valid enforcement tool.

"We believe many judges will be very skeptical of a 'photo cop' device until the Legislature, expressing the public policy of the state, authorizes the use of such a device," he wrote. "Such legislation would also cut down on the administrative cost of people who must also testify on such matters."

Ginder said the city might have to have a technician testify in court that the cameras were in place performing accurately on a given date. He compared it to having police testify about radar gun reliability and said it would not make photo cop prosecution cost-prohibitive.

Ginder declined to predict which legal issues, including constitutional issues raised by opponents, would prove thorniest, but he noted that other jurisdictions had successfully started photo cop programs.

How to pay for it

Reinhardt estimates the photo cop program would cost at least $1 million to start. The city has not budgeted money for the program -- "not a nickel" as far as he knows, he said.

How the city funds photo cop will affect the startup, he said.

One option is to seek state or federal grants, he said. The city would have to wait for the money, and that would delay the program. Another option he calls a "turnkey" operation, wherein the city contracts with a private vendor, which provides all the equipment and mails the tickets -- after a police officer makes the final determination on the citation. The city pays for the system from ticket revenue.

The earliest photo cop could start is the first half of 2005, Reinhardt said.