SF Red Light Cams- The O.G. Crime Cam

Categories: Government

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The city's crime cameras may suck, but they weren't the first tech boondoggle the city implemented. Snitch Joe Eskenazi traces the path to profitability for SF's red light cameras. Too bad we can't triple the fine for murder, indeed. -d2

Smile! You’re Not on Crime Cameras – And it Ain’t the First Time
By Joe Eskenazi

My colleague Ben Wachs’ well-crafted and damning report about how the City’s costly crime cameras aren’t recording anything of value is many things. It’s sad, infuriating and beguiling. But it’s no surprise.

This is not the first time San Francisco has introduced expensive new crime cameras that did not function as planned. And while the City’s previous camera conundrum has ostensibly been solved, the solutions employed last time will not work now.

There’s a variety of reasons for that, but one of the biggest is ...

the crimes the cameras were meant to stamp out. The current crop installed in City public housing projects is aimed at reducing murders and other felonies. The last batch was intended to nab red light runners.

Red light cameras are now so ubiquitous that virtually anyone speeding through a stale yellow light has had occasion to shout “Did it flash?” to his or her passengers. But in 1996, the concept was novel indeed, and San Francisco was one of the first major cities to give the new technology a whirl. But the red light cameras’ initial performance raised a host of red flags.

In order to nail a red light runner, the camera must snap a clean picture of both the car’s front license plate and the offender’s face – and that’s hard to do at 45 miles per hour. Only about one of every three drivers caught on candid red light cameras could be identified. And this made the new devices cost-ineffective.

And yet the City found a novel way to keep its cameras. The contraptions were already paid for; improving the technology was out. So, bringing in one-third the expected income, San Francisco arranged to triple the fine for running a red.

In 1997, Assemblyman Kevin Shelley (a former San Francisco Supervisor and, later, a disgraced Secretary of State forced to resign) authored AB 1191. The legislation upped the fine and penalty for running a red light from $104 to $270 (it has since swelled to around $381 in the City). What’s more, AB 1191 ensured that 30 percent of that total is funneled into a city or county’s general fund.

“And,” as Robert Frost would put it, “That has made all the difference.” With cost-effective red light cameras flashing away, the City claims a sharp reduction in accidents and injuries and the government declares cameras have reduced the tally of collisions in intersections – though some would differ with that conclusion.

But one thing you can’t differ with is the profitability of the venture. In 2006, according to the Department of Parking and Traffic, San Francisco’s 27 cameras resulted in 14,078 citations and $1.5 million in revenue. Thirty percent of offenders paid up immediately, 26% got theirs dismissed in court, 42% went to Traffic School with the last two percent blew it off (which will result in an inability to renew your license).

And, even now, 11 years after the cameras first began flashing in the City, only 29 percent of photos taken are usable.

And that is why the future does not bode well for the inhabitants of public housing burdened by rampant crime and, now, ineffective cameras. In order to solve this problem, the City cannot simply triple the fine for murder.

The $4,000-7,000 cameras must be used in an innovative manner or, perhaps, scrapped and replaced with machines that actually can take crisp pictures of everyday life. But, given the somnambulistic performance of the housing authority officials at last week’s hearing, I wouldn’t be too confident their next steps will be so bold.

If these cameras could, somehow, be utilized as a revenue generator for the City, though, that’d be a whole new ballgame. Ay, there’s the rub: Solving the murders of hard-up public housing residents -- If only there were money in it!

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