New Sarasota red light camera contract approved, but without use of license plate reading technology

Commissioner Hagen Brody raises concerns about invasion of privacy

A red light camera operates on the southwest corner of Bahia Vista Street and Tuttle Avenue. Rachel Hackney photo

On a 3-2 vote, the Sarasota City Commission this week approved a new contract for red light cameras at 10 intersections within the city that will save it $19,000 a month.

However, given concerns cited by Commissioner Hagen Brody, the commission agreed that the use of license plate readers at six of those intersections will not be incorporated into the contract, even though the technology could be utilized at no additional cost.

Nonetheless, Brody and Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch voted against the contract.

“These are cameras that can track and monitor license plates as [vehicles] go by,” including noting the time of day, Brody pointed out during the board’s regular meeting on Jan. 16. Brody indicated he was concerned about the invasion-of-privacy issue. “It makes me a little uncomfortable, the surveillance aspect of these.”

Brody added that he was not sure how many members of the public would be aware of the literal tracking of their comings and goings through the intersections or of the fact that a public record would be created that would be “accessible to anybody that wants to inquire. … I’m not a huge fan of red light cameras, anyway.”

Detective John Lake of the Sarasota Police Department explained that the license plate monitoring would not be undertaken 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Instead, Lake pointed out, it would be used in specific cases, such as when Amber and Silver alerts have been issued, as law enforcement officers try to find children and seniors, respectively, who have been reported missing.

Additionally, Lake said, the information would be purged every three years. “[The data are] not kept forever.”

Lake noted that the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) does not allow the use of license plate recognition equipment at intersections under its authority; therefore, the Police Department had planned to include it with cameras on city rights of way at only six intersections.

Motorists headed east on Bahia Vista Street toward the Tuttle Avenue intersection see the back of the red light camera pole on the right side of the sidewalk. Rachel Hackney photo

Ahearn-Koch noted two different time periods in the contract for the storage of images from the license plate reading equipment. When she asked Lake about that, he replied that the state’s public records law calls for retention of such images for 30 days, but the Police Department wanted the option of keeping them for as long as 45 days.

During the staff presentation, Lake also explained that each of the red light cameras of the city’s new vendor, Red Speed Florida LLC, is capable of covering up to seven lanes of traffic, whereas the equipment of the previous vendor — American Traffic Solutions — could cover only four. As a result, Lake continued, the total number of cameras will be reduced from 23 to 20.

Since the City Commission first approved its Traffic Light Safety ordinance on Nov. 1, 2010, Lake said, the technology “has changed drastically.”

Shana Meadows, the Police Department’s finance manager, told the commission the new contract will cost $73,000 per month, compared to the previous one at $92,000 per month.

She added that the department’s revenue from red light citations in 2017 totaled $1,004,511.56, while expenses were $163,749.51. That meant the difference of $840,762.05 went into the city’s General Fund, Meadows said.

The city uses red light cameras at 10 intersections, capturing traffic movements in a variety of directions. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Asked how much the revenue and expenses of the program may very year-to-year, Meadows responded, “It’s very hard to try to guess” how many violations a driver who runs a red light will incur and whether the person will pay the fines right away. “Twenty to 25% don’t pay the initial notice that they get,” she added, so the Police Department has to send out second notices. “Some of those things are unpredictable, as far as the revenues go.”

In regard to the reasoning for installing the cameras: The backup agenda material for the Jan. 16 meeting included a July 28, 2016 article from the Highway Loss Data Institute of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. It said that red light camera programs “in 79 large U.S. cities saved nearly 1,300 lives through 2014, researchers form the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety have found.”

The article added, “Red-light-running crashes caused 709 deaths in 2014 and an estimated 126,000 injuries. Red light runners account for a minority of the people killed in such crashes.” The article continued, “Most of those killed are occupants of other vehicles, passengers in the red-light-running vehicles, pedestrians or bicyclists.”

The article also pointed out that 21% fewer red-light running crashes with fatalities have been recorded, per capita, in cities where red light cameras have been in use.

More questions

During the discussion of the license plate reading aspect of the proposed new contract, Commissioner Willie Shaw asked whether the system would be similar to the one used by the Town of Longboat Key.

Lake said the technology under consideration for the city was very similar to that employed on the barrier island.

A sign facing eastbound traffic on Bahia Vista Street warns drivers about the red light cameras at the intersection with Tuttle Avenue. Rachel Hackney photo

The Longboat Key technology tracks everyone heading on or off the island, Commissioner Brody noted.

In response to another question, Lake said the intersections of Bahia Vista Street and Tuttle Avenue, along with Fruitville Road and North Lockwood Ridge Road, would be among the six where the license-plate reading technology would be employed, under the scope of the proposed new contract.

When Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie asked whether the commission could approve the contract without the license-plate reading system, Lake told her it could.

“How helpful is this, really, if you only have it at six intersections in the city?” Vice Mayor Liz Alpert asked about the system.

“It could be very helpful,” Lake replied, reiterating his earlier remarks about law enforcement officers responding to Amber and Silver alerts. “It all has to do with, obviously, the direction of the car at those specific intersections.”

He also reminded the board members that the six intersections are the only ones where the technology could be implemented, because of state law.

Shaw ultimately made the motion to approve the contract, but without the vendor’s incorporation of the license plate reading (LPR) technology, and Freeland Eddie seconded it.

“We don’t lose the level of service that we have now by opting out of the LPR,” Freeland Eddie pointed out. If at some future time the commission wanted the firm to employ the technology, she added, the board could ask it to do so.