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Red-light camera citations waived for law enforcement in some places

If Florida motorists run a red light and get caught on camera, they know what to expect: a $158 citation.

But if they're in law enforcement, many cities choose to give them a free pass regardless of their reason for running the light.

St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Port Richey waive the tickets for law enforcement and emergency vehicles, often opting for a written or verbal warning instead.

"Is the public being treated the same? No," said St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon. "The reason why is that police have the authority to run red lights. If they don't have a legitimate reason, I want to discipline them. But I'm not going to also fine them."

Yet other agencies, such as Hillsborough County, South Pasadena, Gulfport, New Port Richey, Temple Terrace and Tampa have policies that require officers to pay the fine.

"That's crazy not to have them pay," said Linda Hallas, the attorney for South Pasadena who helps oversee the town's five-camera program. "Why wouldn't you fine the officer?"

Nearly two years after state lawmakers allowed the use of red-light cameras in Florida, the patchwork way in which they are enforced is only now becoming evident. Communities make their own rules and guidelines, which has created disparities in how law enforcement officers are treated throughout the state.

Last month, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported how Hallandale Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Sunrise and Juno Beach gave officers a free pass.

On Thursday, Matt Florell, a well-schooled camera critic, told the St. Petersburg City Council that police officers and other city employees were getting their tickets waived.

"They're not being treated the same as us," Florell said. "It doesn't seem fair, does it?"

The varying policies are raising concerns even among camera supporters.

"It's unfair to the public," said Hillsborough County sheriff's Cpl. Troy Morgan, who oversees a red-light program that does fine officers. "If you're guilty committing a violation, you should be issued a violation."

• • •

Florell, an owner of a telephone system company, takes his role as a red-light camera critic seriously. He created a website (stpetecameras.org) devoted to the topic.

Florell recently discovered that Gulfport was citing city vehicles while St. Petersburg was not. Gulfport's program is smaller, with three cameras versus St. Petersburg's 22.

Gulfport cited five St. Petersburg vehicles. Four were police cruisers. Three of the fines were dismissed because St. Petersburg police supervisors showed their officers had reason for running the lights. One citation, however, was not waived, and that officer had to pay the $158 fine.

St. Petersburg, by comparison, hasn't issued a single ticket to its officers.

"I thought that was odd," Florell said.

For Harmon, it's simple. He doesn't want his officers getting a ticket for running a red light.

"If the officer can't explain what he was doing, something is going to happen," Harmon said. "It's not like they're not getting punished."

Punishment could be as slight as a written reprimand or as severe as suspension or termination, Harmon said. It just won't be a fine, which he says eliminates his ability to discipline his officers.

By contrast, Hillsborough County, which has fined six deputies for running red lights, doesn't discipline its violators.

"They paid the fine," said Morgan. "They're not being punished harsher than the average citizen."

Tampa will fine on the first offense, but not punish the offenders with extra discipline. An officer can get fined and disciplined if the violations continue, said police spokeswoman Andrea Davis.

St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster said he thinks internal discipline can be harsher than a fine but said he didn't have an opinion on whether the officer should also be fined.

"I have to look into how it's being handled," Foster said. "I do know that officers are held to a higher standard."

Yet it's unclear exactly how, or even if, the St. Petersburg's officers are punished.

Harmon said the city handles red-light infractions among police on a "case-by-case" basis and said there is no set policy that provides guidance. How the officers are disciplined isn't tracked, either.

"The number of times someone has been disciplined?" Harmon said. "I don't have a number. It's usually tucked into a supervisory file. It's not an official department personnel file."

Between January and April, at least 18 St. Petersburg officers were caught going through red lights without lights or sirens, according to Lt. William Korinek, who oversees traffic enforcement. The list is incomplete, however.

"That's not everything," said Korinek. "That's what I had handy. It's just not something that we keep track of. We have more than enough to do than keeping track of this."

The infractions, all caught on video, are reviewed in St. Petersburg by seven former police officers, all of whom work part-time. They receive the videos from the city's red-light camera vendor, Scottsdale, Ariz.-based American Traffic Solutions. If former officers spot city and emergency vehicles, they route the video to Korinek.

Korinek sends the video to the officer's supervisor, who determines if the officer had a legitimate reason for running the light by checking logs or requesting a written explanation.

But Korinek said he doesn't know what has happened in those 18 cases.

"That's an administrative function," Korinek said. "Beyond that point, I've done what's required of me. What happens after that, I don't know."

Harmon said the department doesn't track the discipline in these cases.

"I don't want people to think this is a big deal," Harmon said. "We drive 4 million miles a year, and it's happened a handful of times. It's not as pervasive as it appears."

• • •

Clearwater is installing its camera system and will employ an approach similar to St. Petersburg's.

A St. Petersburg camera caught a Clearwater cruiser running a red light on March 30. Clearwater police are currently reviewing the case, said police spokeswoman Elizabeth Watts.

"If it was the first offense, it would be a written reprimand," Watts said. "But no fine. That would be like punishing them twice."

Port Richey has four cameras installed along a stretch of U.S. 19. It doesn't fine its officers either. There were only two cases where officers ran a red light without a reason, said Capt. Don Young, who oversees traffic enforcement. Rather than the fine, they were given counseling.

"We treat them like any civil infraction," said Young. "We handle it internally."

But officials overseeing other red-light programs think the only way to go is to fine the officers.

"A violation that's given to a deputy should be treated no differently than the one for Joe Blow on the street," said Hillsborough County's Morgan. "We're held to the same standards as everyone else."

Times staff writer Jodie Tillman contributed to this report. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or mvansickler@tampabay.com.

Red-light camera citations waived for law enforcement in some places 05/22/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 23, 2012 2:42am]

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