Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Public safety

New Port Richey plowing through backlog of red light camera citations

NEW PORT RICHEY — If you thought you slipped through a red light undetected just because the ticket never came in the mail, you could be in for a surprise.

The New Port Richey Police Department, which had a backlog of potential violators to cite at its four intersections with red light cameras, is getting caught up. Over the past two weeks, Officer Corey Ray has been reviewing footage of possible red-light runners and has issued more than 1,000 citations — many of which came from cases that had been sitting dormant in the system.

An officer must review video footage of each potential red light runner before a ticket can be issued. In recent months, the cases stacked up under Ray's predecessor, Detective Greg Williams, who has been busy earning his animal control certification and launching the city's new Animal Protection Unit, among other duties.

"I think it's a great program. We've seen our crashes go down," Williams said. "It's a benefit, but it also hurts us as a department sometimes in terms of the other things we need to get done."

He has spent the past month training Ray, and the pair have been working feverishly to eliminate the backlog.

Altogether last month, New Port Richey officers reviewed 2,110 possible red light infractions and issued tickets for 1,286 of them. The city has cameras on U.S. 19 at Main Street, Cross Bayou Boulevard, Gulf Drive and Marine Parkway.

As of Friday, only 120 cases remained in the queue for review.

That number only tells part of the story, though. An untold number of backlogged cases were dropped altogether because they sat in the system too long. Police must review the footage within 30 days of receiving it in order to issue a ticket.

Pitched as a way to curb dangerous drivers, free up patrol officers and bring revenue to cities, red light cameras still impose a staffing demand on local police departments. New Port Richey Police Chief James Steffens said his department is feeling the strain.

"It's a burden on our staff, but it's also about the public safety it provides the community. So it's a balance," Steffens said.

So far this year, Williams has spent 391 hours viewing red light videos and making calls on whether to issue citations. He has also spent countless hours preparing for and appearing in court on red light citations that drivers have chosen to challenge.

In addition to drivers simply pleading not guilty, New Port Richey and other cities must contend with the glut of constitutional challenges to red light cameras that are sweeping courts across the state. Williams has 110 subpoenas on his desk for citations set for an upcoming traffic court date Dec. 13.

In two weeks, Ray has spent 61 hours looking at red light videos in addition to his other duties as a community policing officer. He said he is preparing for an avalanche of subpoenas now that he is working the program.

"It's big a job. I'll have a ton of subpoenas when it comes that time," he said.

Steffens said the workload can create overtime costs for the department. And with high numbers of red light runners on U.S. 19, the chief doesn't see any relief for his officers.

While the city receives some of the money from the $158 tickets, none of it goes directly to the Police Department. Last fiscal year the city received $830,000 from the cameras, and is projected to pull in $1.2 million this year, according to city finance director Doug Haag.

"As far as the red light program goes, my only concern is for public safety," Steffens said. "We do all the sweat equity in operating the program which is taxing and I don't see relief for."

Steffens said the program really needs a dedicated position to handle the program, but that is not likely to happen in the city's current economic situation. The chief said he is working with city finance officials to possibly divert some revenue from the program to the department.

Such a revenue stream already exists for the Port Richey Police Department's red light program, which has been operational since 2008.

The Port Richey Police Department gets $5 per citation from its U.S. 19 cameras at Ridge Road and Grand Boulevard. That money is only used for equipment purchases. It adds up to a good chunk of change for the department, as the city brought in nearly $500,000 last fiscal year from its red light cameras.

Currently, the Port Richey Police Department uses two people to keep up with watching videos and issuing citations. Capt. Don Young long ago trained the city's civilian community service officer Pete Graffagnino to handle a bulk of the operation. Graffagnino this year has logged 401 hours watching video. Young has put in roughly 215 hours.

Young said he feels for what New Port Richey is going through.

"The first year was tough," he said. "It's just the sheer volume of cases."

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