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Problems With Privatized Law Enforcement's New Frontier

By Phineas Baxandall
Senior Analyst for Tax & Budget Policy

A company contracts with your city to search through your individual garbage. If they find other improperly sorted waste, they send you a municipal citation and collect a portion of the fine. Another company surveys your house for zoning violations. The cash-strapped city is glad for the extra revenue and brags that compliance with housing code is on the rise. They contract with another company that installs cameras in the red lights at busy intersections. After turning right at a red light without coming to a complete stop behind the line, the company sends you a ticket in the mail for $156.

Only one of these things happen presently and it's stirring up hornets' nests of outrage around the country. As many as 700 communities across as many as 28 states contract out to private companies that install and operate automated red-light or speed cameras and then send tickets to the owners of cars caught on film for legal violations.

One in five Americans lives in a jurisdiction that outsources traffic ticketing this way, according to a newly released report from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, titled "Caution: Red Light Cameras Ahead; The Risks of Privatizing Traffic Law Enforcement and How to Protect the Public." And a report released by the Justice Department suggests this trend may accelerate under the twin pressures of budget pressure and intense lobbying.

Cash-starved municipalities privatizing law enforcement? Companies with business models that depend on catching increasing numbers of Americans for crimes? This can be a terrible combination.

The report finds a number of abuses. For example, the people of Baytown, Texas were confronted with a breach of contract lawsuit after they voted in November 2010 to terminate their camera system. A lengthy legal battle ensued, and the settlement required the town to pay $1 million in exchange for the removal of the cameras. Bell Gardens, California signed a contract with Redflex Traffic Systems that allowed the camera vendor to penalize the city if it decided to alter the duration of yellow lights at monitored intersections. Some studies have even found that red-light cameras can increase injuries.

Since company profits depend on driving up ticket revenue, it's not surprising that companies also wield political power to influence local decisions. According to the Orlando Sun Sentinel, the company American Traffic Solutions spent over $1.3 million on lobbying activities in the past four years. Since 2006, Redflex hired over 100 registered lobbyists to represent their interests in 18 states.

These kinds of abuses have sparked a citizen backlash. Sixteen municipalities have held public referenda against these programs, all successful. Major cities like Los Angeles, Atlanta, Raleigh and Houston have rejected red-light cameras after initially approving them.

Almost every state with red-light cameras has spurred citizen opposition groups with mad-as-hell names like "BanTheCams," "Wrong on Red," and "Highway Robbery."

Drivers of course should obey the law and have always griped about tickets, but Americans rightly feel outraged when they believe others game the system to use the law as a way to pick their pockets. If people are forced to pay fines, they want to know that police charges against them are fair. They get incensed to discover that contracts with private camera vendors can dictate policing and safety practices even when the public has weighed in against those practices. It's not that police are entirely removed from camera ticketing -- they still must view the photo and stamp their final approval on the final approval -- but the judgment of public officials is removed and after-the-fact.

People can also rail against camera vendor contracts that seem unreasonable or motivated by greed. For all their human frailties, police officers are expected to act justly, not merely to follow contractual limits when exploiting people. Back in 1980, social scientist Michael Lipsky coined the phrase "street-level bureaucrats" to describe how front-line public servants like police and firefighters inevitably must exercise judgment to decide how to translate the law. Police treat a driver that races through a red light at a crowded school zone differently from a right turn at a deserted corner in the middle of the night.

It's not that automated ticketing technology is fundamentally evil. If a city has recurrent problems with injuries from red-light running at particular intersections and they have already tried alternative measures such as lengthening yellow light intervals and improving visibility, then an automated deterrent may prevent future injuries. The program can even be operated fully by the public. The Illinois State Police operate their own program using cameras to ticket dangerous speeders near highway work sites. That program has been without controversy.

The report suggests basic reforms to prevent problems with automated traffic enforcement contracting. Local officials considering the use of red-light traffic cameras should:

  • Put public safety first in decisions regarding enforcement of traffic laws -- this includes evaluating privatized law enforcement camera systems against alternative safety options without regard to potential revenues.
  • Ensure that contract language is free from potential conflicts of interest.
  • Avoid direct or indirect incentives for vendors that are based on the volume of tickets or fines.
  • Retain complete public control over all transportation policy decisions.
  • Retain the option to withdraw from a contract early if dissatisfied with service or its effects.
  • Ensure that the process of contracting with vendors is completely open, with ample opportunity for meaningful public participation.
  • Make information about the operation of privatized traffic law enforcement fully transparent and accessible online.
  • Not permit information about individual vehicles and drivers gathered by camera vendors to be used for any purpose other than the enforcement of traffic laws.
  • Consider establishing state standards to help cities avoid contracting for automated enforcement systems that are not justified or when alternatives make more sense.

If municipalities don't create better ground rules for privatizing traffic law enforcement, Americans will become even more cynical about government's ability to protect the common good. When powerful corporations line up to produce revenue from fines on citizens, we need strong public protections against abuse.

Especially before some company contracts to look through our garbage.

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