This little village had a big problem.
Each day, thousands of cars — sometimes as many as 18,000 — rolled along Elmwood Place’s streets, crossing the third-of-a-mile town to get to neighboring Cincinnati or major employers in bustling suburbs or heavily traveled Interstate 75. Many zipped by Elmwood Place’s modest homes and small businesses at speeds well above the 25 mph limit.
Bedeviled by tight budgets, the police force was undermanned. The situation, villagers feared, was dangerous.
Then the cameras were turned on, and all hell broke loose.
Like hundreds of other U.S. communities big and small, Elmwood Place hired an outside company to install cameras to record traffic violations and mail out citations.
In the first month after the cameras began operating, late last year, 6,600 tickets went out — more than triple the village’s population. Before some unsuspecting drivers realized it, they had racked up multiple $105 citations they would learn about when their mail arrived weeks later. Some 70 parishioners, or more than half the congregation at Our Lady of Lavang Catholic Community Church, were ticketed on one Sunday last September.
Soon, there was a Facebook page promoting a boycott of the village, a petition drive against cameras, and a lawsuit against the village that threatened to wreck Elmwood Place financially. Four council members resigned. And an atmosphere of distrust and uneasiness hung over a village that traced its roots back to the 19th century, before traffic cameras or even automotive traffic.
“I think Elmwood Place tried to do something, but maybe not in the right way,” said Catherine Jones, who brought a chair and small table out of her namesake Southern-style restaurant on a recent afternoon and sat in the sun as she read her Bible and wrote out notes about the verses.
Just last year, she recalled, a pedestrian was hit and killed a couple blocks from her restaurant, near an elementary school. So she understood that something had to be done. But now she is among many small business owners worried that the cameras have given the village a speed-trap stigma.
Few things will rile citizens quicker than getting tickets in the mail, along with photos of their vehicles under a red light. The letters usually inform them they will not be assessed traffic violation “points”; nor will their insurance company be contacted. But they must pay up, or face a collection agency and damage to their credit ratings.
Supporters of camera enforcement say they stretch law enforcement resources, and they usually result in safer driving and thus save lives. Opponents see cameras giving governments a way to grab more money from taxpayer pockets, putting local policing in the hands of remote, for-profit companies, and taking society another step toward an Orwellian state of constant surveillance for misbehavior.
In Arizona, where two large photo enforcement companies are based, red-light and speed enforcement cameras have been a matter of contention for years. Gov. Jan Brewer scuttled a state program that put speed-enforcement cameras on freeways and interstates in 2010 when a contract expired; efforts to ban the devices used by many cities and towns are a yearly fixture in the Legislature.
In February, San Diego followed Los Angeles and Pasadena in dropping traffic camera citations; the mayor said they bred disrespect for the law because residents believed they were meant to make money, not reduce accidents. Legislation to require communities to get state permits before installing traffic cameras stalled this year in Iowa, while a group called Stop Big Brother has been trying to head off cameras in Iowa City.
There are 12 states that ban speed cameras, and nine prohibit red-light cameras.
Yet despite the critics and complaints, camera use is growing overall. The New York state legislature this month approved installing speed cameras in New York City school zones. Communities with traffic cameras, or automated enforcement, have increased more than fivefold across the country in less than a decade, with red-light cameras in 530 municipalities and speeding cameras in 125, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
“There is Zeitgeist in the country right now on privacy concerns, concerns about intrusion; we understand that,” said Jonathan Adkins of the Governors Highway Safety Association, which promotes safety nationally through state-level efforts. That group and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an Arlington, Va.-based nonprofit organization funded by auto insurers, say studies show cameras result in a reduction of fatal crashes caused by red light-running, and in reduced speeding in pedestrian-sensitive areas such as school zones.
“What we’ve seen from the field is red light cameras and safety cameras are both important tools in the safety tool box,” Adkins said, adding that they should complement, not replace, law enforcement and should be focused on safety, not boosting budgets.
Holly Calhoun doesn’t believe they were about safety in her hardscrabble village.
“Elmwood was just doing it because they needed money,” said the manager of Elmwood Quick Mart, which offers phone cards, lottery tickets and Mexican food, and advertises its willingness to accept food stamps.
“People couldn’t afford those tickets,” Calhoun said. “They can barely afford to pay their bills. It was pretty sad.”
Settled by German farmers and laborers who came up from Appalachian Kentucky, Elmwood Place was incorporated in 1890. Like many “inner-ring” American suburbs, it hit its peak many decades ago. Older residents recall bucolic times of moonlit concerts and tire swings hanging from backyard trees.
But outsourcing of blue-collar work made life tougher for many residents, and the village’s incomes and housing values fell well below statewide averages. Housing stock deteriorated to the point where you can buy a two-bedroom fixer-upper for less than $60,000.
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Associated Press writer Bob Christie in Phoenix contributed to this story.