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Traffic cameras hit legal red light

Police avid, despite privacy issue

Brockton and Rockland are the latest in a growing list of communities to approve the use of traffic cameras at intersections to catch red light scofflaws, only to learn that their local ordinances conflict with state law.

Those towns and cities want the Legislature to amend the law so they can start installing the systems. But it could be a long time before any cameras are doing police work in Massachusetts.

"You're going to have to do a good selling job on me to get me to change the whole policy," said state Representative Ronald Mariano, Democrat of Quincy, who cochairs the Joint Committee on Financial Services, where a bill to change state traffic law would be heard. "I don't like the idea of cameras at intersections. I just think it smacks of Big Brother . . . of invasion of privacy."

State law specifies that a red-light violation is an insurance surcharge offense, meaning that it affects one's insurance costs, according to Jean Berke, general counsel for the Registry of Motor Vehicles. State laws also govern the process an officer must follow in issuing a citation.

But, largely as a sales pitch to residents fearing privacy intrusion, communities including Brockton and Rockland have passed camera ordinances under which there would be no insurance surcharge for a violator. Instead, the cameras, which would work only when a sensor recorded a red-light violation, would photograph the car's license plate, not the driver. The car owner would be sent a citation similar to a parking ticket, but it would not increase his insurance.

"We were looking to change driving habits; we weren't looking to punish people," said Lieutenant Stephen Sweezey, head of traffic enforcement for the Police Department in Saugus, the first Massachusetts community to approve cameras. No Massachusetts community has installed them yet, because of the state law conflict.

Saugus, Lawrence, and Springfield were the first communities to approve the use of the cameras, and Brockton passed an ordinance last month. Rockland approved a similar bylaw in the spring, and East Bridgewater, Foxborough, Pembroke, and Weymouth are exploring the idea.

At least one bill before the Legislature would allow for citations that don't carry insurance surcharges, if they are based on traffic cameras. But bills related to traffic cameras have languished in the Legislature before, raising doubt that any consensus will be reached soon.

In the meantime, police interest in the cameras continues to grow, and companies that install the system have met with police chiefs across the state.

"There's quite a bit of movement at this time," said A. Wayne Sampson, executive director of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association. "All the major cities are looking at it."

Peter McNerney, regional sales director for one of the country's largest camera vendors, Redflex Traffic Systems, said he is pushing for the Legislature to allow communities to use their own strategies for using the cameras, saying the system has proved useful in reducing traffic accidents.

Redflex and at least one other camera vendor, Nestor Traffic Systems, have hired legal firms as part of their lobbying efforts.

"I'm optimistic, because it's a safety issue, and I think legislators are very responsible when it comes to that," McNerney said.

Police chiefs have praised the camera system, saying it is helpful technology at a time of dwindling resources.

"We have no way of putting a police officer at every light," said East Bridgewater Police Chief John E. Cowan, who has proposed the police use of cameras in his town. "We're looking at it from a public-safety point of view. Running red lights, besides speed, is a major source of accidents."

In Foxborough, voters rejected a police proposal to install traffic cameras, based on privacy concerns. Still, Chief Edward T. O'Leary continues to research the program, believing it could help deter violations and accidents.

Mayor James E. Harrington of Brockton, who introduced the law in his city on behalf of local police, said he modeled his ordinance after that in Saugus, despite its apparent conflict with state law. Harrington said he received two separate legal reviews from city lawyers before deciding the city could adopt the program.

Dennis Eaniri, the City Council president, said he did not know about the conflict with the state law. He said that the Brockton measure had the full support of the council and that he will work to make sure the cameras are installed.

Harrington said that he will continue to study the issue, but that the support for the issue from communities passing local measures should send a message to the Legislature that something should be done.

"We took one step, and now we're waiting to see from here," Harrington said. "We're certainly going to make sure all legal issues have been resolved."

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