Although they are billed as tools of public safety and assets for law enforcement, one local leader wants to see traffic cameras banned throughout St. Louis County.
“It has nothing to do with crime. It has everything to with dollars,” St. Louis County Council member Tim Fitch [R-District 3] said.
During the council’s Jan. 7 meeting, Fitch introduced legislation that would be the first step toward a ban on the use of traffic cameras on all public roads throughout St. Louis County. If the legislation is successfully passed by the council, the question would be put to voters in the county.
The measure is being co-sponsored by Fitch’s Republican council colleagues: Ernie Trakas [District 6] and Mark Harder [District 7]. Introducing the bill through a first reading was the easy part. Getting it passed by the council now run by a Democratic majority could prove to be more challenging.
County Executive Sam Page has already indicated he may be hesitant to support a ban. In a statement issued to the media, Page said, “Some jurisdictions use them successfully. We will evaluate all legislation thoughtfully and deliberatively. Banning without reviewing data is not deliberative.”
Nevertheless, Fitch is passionate about the issue and credits his extensive law enforcement experience with providing him insights on the issue.
“It was very apparent to me as the chief of St. Louis County that some cities were using [cameras] for the sole purpose of generating revenue, not for public safety,” Fitch said. “I felt it was a horrible use of police power.”
Fitch retired in 2014 after a 31-year career in law enforcement. He spent the last five years of his career as the county police chief. He’s not alone in his opinion of traffic cameras. Fitch’s successor and current chief echoed his sentiments.
“Chief [Jon] Belmar believes that the use of traffic light cameras are not truly in the interest of public safety,” a spokesperson for the County Police Department said. “Furthermore, the chief believes that the predatory cameras can have a disparate impact on low-income communities.”
Fitch’s actions come on the heels of two related developments.
The city of St. Louis recently announced it would begin accepting proposals from vendors to provide traffic cameras for city streets. Mayor Lyda Krewson said at the time of the announcement that traffic cameras were being considered again [the system hasn’t been used since a 2015 Missouri Supreme Court Ruling] due to a chronic shortage of police officers in the city.
Fitch isn’t buying that explanation at all.
“It’s all about the money,” he said. “The city is constantly looking for new sources of revenue.”
Earlier this month, Illinois comptroller Susana Mendoza announced that her office would no longer assist local law enforcement in the collection of fines based on tickets issued by traffic cameras.
“As a matter of public policy, this system is clearly broken. I am exercising the moral authority to prevent state resources from being used to assist a shady process that victimizes taxpayers,” Mendoza said in a press release.
The move comes after an investigative report by the Chicago Sun-Times alleged widespread corruption and political manipulation in many municipalities across the state. One source quoted in the article even claimed to receive “kickbacks” for every traffic camera issued ticket given out by an unnamed city.
Prior to that announcement, the comptroller’s office could garnish state tax refunds for residents with outstanding tickets or fines. But Mendoza made it clear that she would not let “the state’s collection mechanisms be hijacked by political insiders.”
“The last time, [the city] hired every political person they could find to lobby for [cameras] – trying to sell local law enforcement on the benefits,” Fitch said of St. Louis City.
If the council passes Fitch’s bill it will be up to voters in November to decide if traffic cameras have a place at any intersection in St. Louis County.