Wednesday, Jun 20, 2018
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Red lights, long green

Mayor Mike Bell's administration plans to install 11 new red-light cameras throughout Toledo this spring, so that it can apply a projected $320,000 in traffic fines to funding for city recreation programs. Treating law enforcement as a revenue center is a disquieting practice reminiscent of speed traps.

Certainly recreation programs can defuse tensions among young people, especially in an economically battered city. But linking the funding of these programs to traffic infractions sets a precedent that invites abuse. Swimming in a city pool or playing on a softball diamond has nothing to do with police department efforts to reduce traffic violations and promote public safety.

This isn't bureaucratic nitpicking. Toledo's use of cameras for traffic enforcement has been controversial since it became the first Midwestern city to embrace the practice 11 years ago. The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups have cited privacy issues.

The city now has 32 cameras. The Ohio Supreme Court ruled in the city's favor in a legal challenge to the cameras, concluding they were necessary to augment other traffic-enforcement efforts.

But the issue in that case was public safety. When city officials acknowledge -- and even promote -- the use of red-light cameras as a revenue-raising tool, it confirms the skepticism of critics, and likely will change the way Toledoans think about the cameras.

Toledo Police Chief Derrick Diggs seeks to gain public acceptance of surveillance cameras in high-crime areas of the city to compensate for what he calls his department's understaffing. The technology is different from that of red-light traffic cameras, but the distinction may not be obvious to people who fear that the surveillance cameras could jeopardize their civil liberties.

Statistics show that red-light cameras do make streets safer and reduce traffic violations. Even so, they generate a lot of revenue for the city's supplier, Redflex Traffic Systems Inc., and the company's customers. Toledo has steadily increased the fine related to violations detected by the cameras, now $120.

Depending on traffic fines to fund recreation programs is questionable fiscal policy, since the rationale should be that such revenue will decrease as the cameras do their work and violations go down. By promoting such a correlation, it could appear that the city is rooting for more money-making red-light runners, despite their effect on public safety.

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