HPD had over 100 squad cars cited for running red lights without sirens during the first year of installing red light cameras in various locations throughout Houston. Many of the citations handed out have been appealed and dismissed for police officers. The question not asked: how many police officers have run red lights with lights and sirens on just to turn them off and slow down after passing through intersections? We’ve all seen it done, just like we’ve all seen police cars speed, tailgate, harass homeless people with their speaker systems, and other tactics of “traffic control”. Is this what HPD is now calling “community policing”? We hope not.
Red-light cameras also snaring police
More than 520 tickets have been issued to public agencies since operation began
Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle
Houston police commanders say the city’s red-light camera enforcement program should increase safety at intersections by prompting “behavior modifications” in motorists.
Not all of their own employees are getting the message, however.
More than 100 Houston police vehicles moving through intersections without emergency lights were cited in the first year of the cameras’ operation, according to ticket data.
“We’re just like regular citizens. We’re only human,” said Martha Montalvo, an executive assistant chief with the Houston Police Department who oversees the program.
“We’re hoping for some behavior modifications from all angles, not only from our citizens but also from our city employees.”
The officers’ citations were among more than 520 tickets issued to local public schools, governments and the area’s transit agency since the cameras went online last fall. The tickets resulted in nearly $40,000 in fines, according to electronic records released under the Texas Public Information Act.
The public vehicle citations represent a tiny fraction of the more than 100,000 issued to all motorists during this period. But officials from the various agencies say they take them seriously, requiring employees to pay the fines and, in some cases, undergo extra training to avoid repeat offenses. At least one school district, Aldine, has fired bus drivers for running red lights.
The Metropolitan Transit Authority, whose drivers were cited at least 129 times with fines totaling nearly $10,000, said it suspends bus operators for violations. A third citation also results in termination, Metro spokeswoman Raequel Roberts said.
“We definitely take this very, very seriously,” she said. “We take steps that we need to take to drive that point home.”
The Houston Independent School District has a similar camera policy for its bus drivers, who were cited at least 14 times. Aaron Hobbs, the district’s interim general manager for transportation, said drivers are given verbal and written reminders to be careful.
“It’s definitely a concern,” Hobbs said. “We’re carrying a precious cargo.”
Drivers put on probation
Those who make mistakes, he said, must sit with a supervisor to review a video of the incident. They also are placed on 60 days of probation during which they receive training, and are taught to avoid situations in which they are forced to drive through a red light or decelerate quickly at the last second.They can be fired if they receive another citation during this period, a situation that has not occurred, Hobbs said.
“We would really be looking hard at whether you would continue employment with us,” he said.
Aldine ISD, which received 17 citations, 15 for buses, has a zero-tolerance policy it began with the new school year. Two bus drivers have been fired for citations, district spokeswoman Leticia Fehling said in a written statement.
“Safely transporting students to and from school is one of our highest priorities. We have improved our training of drivers to help prevent accidents and to place more emphasis on adherence to traffic laws,” the statement said.
The cameras also nabbed drivers using the cars and trucks from the city of Houston’s massive fleet of civilian vehicles and fire trucks.
Other agencies that received citations included the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Port of Houston Authority and several other school districts.
The data show the number of citations has increased in the last six months at a rate that corresponds with the city’s gradual expansion of the camera system.
From September 2006 through February, when there were 30 cameras in place, 189 public vehicles were cited. From March through August, when there were 50 cameras, at least 336 citations were issued, a 78 percent increase.
Some tickets dismissed
Montalvo and other Houston police officials say the growing number of cameras, in part, accounts for the increase in citations issued to officers during the second half of the year.She also noted that some of the violations later were dismissed because officers were, in fact, responding to authorized calls. Sometimes officers run “silent,” without lights or sirens, so they don’t telegraph their approach to suspects.
Still, she said, numerous officers have been forced to pay. Some have appealed their cases, with mixed success, to hearing examiners at Municipal Court, a right afforded to all motorists.
Asked whether the increase in public vehicles’ citations contradicted the goal of “behavior modifications,” Montalvo said the department plans a more aggressive campaign to raise awareness of the cameras to the general public — and to officers.
“We can do a better job,” she said.