Lawmakers took the first steps to outlaw the cameras that several Ohio cities have set up to catch drivers who speed and run red lights.
Statehouse correspondent Karen Kasler reports the bill goes to the House floor without the support of a key Republican.
The vote to ban city traffic cameras was scheduled in a House committee Tuesday afternoon. Just minutes before, a group of police officers, city officials and other activists who oppose the ban held a press conference in a room across the hall from the commitee room. Mike Weinman of the Fraternal Order of Police said in a time when budget problems are forcing police layoffs, traffic cameras are what he called a vital force multiplier.
“Law enforcement officers can’t be on every corner. But cameras provide a consistent, reliable surveillance at intersections, allowing law enforcement agencies to address other public safety concerns while also monitoring dangerous streets and intersections in the community.”
And Columbus deputy safety director George Speaks said the ban will almost certainly create major problems on the city streets where the cameras are now in use.
“A vote for House Bill 69 will undoubtedly increase death, injury and property damage on our roadways in Ohio. Study after study shows the technology works.”
But whether the technology works has never been an issue for opponents of the ban. For many, the concern has been a lack of due process – in the case of cameras, the lack of an opportunity to question the police officer who saw the offense happen, because there is no officer there.
“It violates and completely throws out the window the presumption of innocence.”
Mike Allen is an attorney in Cincinnati who’s been fighting traffic cameras in Elmwood in southwestern Ohio. In the first month of the village’s camera program, 6,600 citations were generated – Elmwood has a little over 2,100 residents. A judge shut down the program in March by saying it was – using his words – “a scam that motorists can’t win”. An amendment was accepted that would require a police officer to be with a traffic camera if it’s set up in a school zone. The bill’s sponsor, Republican Ron Maag of Lebanon, said he felt that answered many of the ban’s critics.
“It’s going to force a policeman to be at the scene when these cameras are running in a school zone – something that if individuals know that these things are in a school zone, apparently they will slow down. So that gives those people due process because they can address that officer.”
But for many lawmakers who back a ban, the concern isn’t safety or due process – it’s money. Mike Allen noted that Elmwood was generating $350,000 a month from its cameras, a huge amount of money in a small village.
“Is there anyone in here that truly believes in their heart that this is not about revenue and it’s about safety, because it clearly is not. It is about revenue, pure and simple. And I get it – that municipalities are hurting. And the smaller the municipality, the more they’re hurting. But this isn’t the way to do it...It’s policing for profit.”
Traffic cameras brought in $16 million in just over a dozen cities in Ohio last year. But the concerns about how that money would be replaced led a the chair of the committee, Rex Damschroder of Findlay, to vote against the ban.
“If those local public safety departments don’t have that revenue, what are we going to do, raise taxes on everybody else to make up for the lost law enforcement? I’m not for raising taxes.”
Damschroder added that he felt the ban stripped communities of local control – which was the reason former Gov. Bob Taft gave in vetoing a similar ban on traffic cameras in 2007. Two other Republicans also voted against the ban, along with Democrat Bob Hagan of Youngstown. It’s likely to be voted on by the full House on Wednesday.