Candid Camera Conflict

City Council candidates split on traffic-enforcement cameras

The candidates vying for a seat on the Tucson City Council in the Nov. 5 election are split when it comes to cameras that nab speeders and red-light runners.

The Democrats support photo-radar enforcement, while the Republicans generally oppose it.

The cameras, are a controversial law enforcement tool. The city uses them in two ways: The Tucson Police Department has two vans that move around the city to bust speeders and has installed cameras at eight intersections that detect both speeders and red-light runners.

Statistics show that accidents have dipped at most intersections where the cameras have been installed, according to a city audit of the program. For example, there were 40 collisions at the intersection of Grant and Tanque Verde roads in 2006 and 2007. Last year, that number had dropped to 12. Overall, the number of collisions at the monitored intersections has decreased from 188 in 2006 to 74 in 2012.

At the same time, the city has collected millions of dollars in revenue with the cameras, which are operated in conjunction with the private company American Traffic Solutions. The audit showed that over the life of the program, the city had brought in just under $6 million in net revenue, including more than $1.1 million in fiscal year 2012.

Ward 5 Councilman Richard Fimbres, a Democrat who ran the Arizona Governor's Office of Highway Safety before joining the Tucson City Council, said the cameras have helped reduce accidents on city streets.

"This is a measure meant to save lives and prevent injuries," Fimbres said. "I don't believe this was ever meant to be a money-making tool. This was a tool to help slow down drivers, because people are too distracted and not paying enough attention to their driving."

Republican Mike Polak, who hopes to unseat Fimbres, said that the cameras should go.

"I think we should get rid of them," Polak said.

He feared the cameras might improperly cite motorists.

"How do you know it didn't malfunction?" Polak asked. "They do malfunction, because our roads are in such poor condition here."

Polak, who moved to Tucson to work on a Boeing contract to build an electronic "virtual fence" along the border, said that a private company was "completely profiting from this."

Polak added that he would prefer facing the judgment of a police officer over a Robocop.

"If I'm gonna get a ticket, I'd rather get it from a cop," Polak said.

Ward 3 Councilwoman Karin Uhlich, a Democrat, called the cameras "a wise investment in technology."

The two-term incumbent said that her review of the data showed that crashes were down at the intersections where the cameras had been installed.

"Safety matters," Uhlich said. "I believe we have saved lives."

She added that the police department had asked for the cameras.

"They need us to support them when they identify technology that increase resources," Uhlich said. "We can have fewer police officers assigned to traffic so they can get to burglaries sooner. We can't have it both ways."

Her Republican opponent, Ben Buehler-Garcia, has a nuanced approach: He wants to get rid of the cameras at the intersections, but keep the photo-radar vans that move around the city.

Buehler said the "data is inconclusive" regarding the cameras at intersections and suggested that they could be dangerous because drivers could be distracted by them and change their normal driving behavior.

But he said the roaming vans are an effective law-enforcement tool because speeders don't know their location, so they are less likely to lower their speed as they approach the vans and then speed up once they are past them.

"They're more cost-efficient and they're mobile," Buehler-Garcia said. "Folks don't know where they're going to be."

Buehler-Garcia said the revenue from the cameras could be replaced if police would crack down on pedestrians near University Medical Center.

"I'd like to post an officer just a little down the road on Campbell Avenue and let's start ticketing the people who are jaywalking at UMC," he said.

Ward 6 Councilman Steve Kozachik, who is unopposed in his reelection campaign, didn't like the sound of Buehler-Garcia's proposal.

"Lay off the jaywalkers," Kozachik said after hearing the idea at a forum last week. "I do it every morning when I'm out running. You'll end up balancing the budget on my morning run."