published Friday, February 21st, 2014

Camera backlash: 'Brutal' reaction has commissioners rethinking traffic cameras

  • photo
    Chattanooga police officers use traffic cameras like this one to enforce speed limits. Hamilton County officials on Thursday indicated they would take back their approval for the sheriff to buy similar equipment after too many people opposed the plan.
    Photo by Angela Lewis.
    enlarge photo

Poll
Should the sheriff's office use mobile traffic cameras?

HOW THEY VOTED

On Wednesday, the following commissioners voted for the speed detection cameras.

Voting for: Bankston*, Beck, Fields, Haynes, Henry

* These commissioners say they will change their votes.

Voting against:

Tim Boyd, Joe Graham, Warren Mackey, Fred Skillern

Public backlash was so overwhelming and "brutal" that three Hamilton County commissioners already have changed their minds about a decision that opened the door to traffic cameras.

Within 24 hours after commissioners voted 5-4 Wednesday to let Sheriff Jim Hammond obtain and use two camera-equipped speed detection devices, District 3 Commissioner Marty Haynes said the issue will be revoted next week -- and likely will have a different outcome.

With the devices, officers could video speeding drivers and mail $50 civil tickets to vehicle owners without performing a traffic stop.

In Chattanooga, police use red-light cameras and so-called "speed vans" to photograph drivers breaking the law and send them tickets. But the county resolution caused much debate at the commission's dais and earned a barrage of criticism on social media.

Haynes, who seconded the motion Wednesday, said Thursday the public has spoken.

"The public has made it very clear they are not in favor. My vote will change," Haynes said. "The firestorm over this has been pretty, well, pretty brutal."

Commissioners Chester Bankston and Larry Henry, who also supported the measure, said Thursday they would change their votes, too. Both said they took numerous calls from residents against the resolution.

"I've told [Chairman Fred Skillern] to put it back on the agenda," Bankston said. "I'll make the motion, or second it or whatever, next week. I already told someone today, I don't have any butt left."

Bankston and Henry said the public -- and the commission -- didn't have enough time to vet the resolution before the vote.

Typically, the commission meets for an agenda session to discuss issues, then votes on items the following week. Because of snow last week, the commission postponed its agenda session and combined the agenda and voting sessions Wednesday.

"We normally have a week in between our agenda session to hear from our constituents. We didn't this time, and I listen to my constituents. That's why I changed my mind," Bankston said.

Henry agreed.

"We didn't really have a whole lot of time to look at this resolution as it came up. And the discussion on it was really limited," Henry said.

The main reason Henry supported the resolution was because $12.50 out of each ticket would be earmarked to pay for a countywide driver education program.

But Henry said after looking at the numbers, he saw that the funding mechanism for the program wasn't feasible.

Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security records show there are 23,195 licensed drivers between the ages of 15 and 22 in Hamilton County. The driver's education program would cost the county $300 per student. It would take 24 tickets to pay for each driver -- or 556,680 tickets, if all the eligible drivers took the course.

  • photo
    Chattanooga police officers use traffic cameras like these to enforce speed limits. The Hamilton County Commission voted Wednesday to allow the sheriff’s office to use manned traffic cameras.
    Photo by Angela Lewis.
    enlarge photo

"I've been here for a long time, and I'm man enough to admit a mistake," Henry said. "And yesterday was a mistake."

But Commissioner Greg Beck, whose constituents live in Chattanooga and who made the first motion in support, said his vote won't change.

Beck, a City Court officer, said the cameras would give officers a chance to cite drivers in areas where it is unsafe to perform traffic stops.

"I've explained to [constituents] that we are talking about officer safety. They are going to post offices, in school zones, so it's student safety and parent safety, too," Beck said. "And there's some revenue coming from it. Half would be split with the county and half would go to educating our kids."

He said changing his mind would be just a political decision. The May 6 partisan primaries are 10 weeks away.

"If others want to fight about doing what's right, well, they'll have to do that. It's not going to be a problem for anybody who doesn't drive fast," Beck said.

Hammond said Thursday that the contract with Applied Technology Partners has not been signed. And even if it had, there is a 30-day trial period. If the commission changes its decision, he'll just have to deal with it.

"The only thing I can really say there is: My job as sheriff is to bring to them technology to improve safety in our community and improve driver education. It's the commission's job to say yes or no. If the commissioners decide they don't want to go with that, I just have to say OK," Hammond said.

District 2 Commissioner Jim Fields, who also voted for the measure, said he preferred not to comment on how he will vote until he hears discussion on the floor.

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at lbrogdon@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6481.

about Louie Brogdon...

Louie Brogdon began reporting with the Chattanooga Times Free Press in February 2013. Before he came to the Scenic City, Louie lived on St. Simons Island, Ga. and covered crime, courts, environment and government at the Brunswick News, a 17,000-circulation daily on the Georgia coast. While there, he was awarded for investigative reporting on police discipline and other law enforcement issues by the Georgia Press Association. For the Times Free Press, Louie covers Hamilton County ...

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