PORT ANGELES — The Port Angeles City Council has reviewed one city’s use of traffic safety cameras as a force multiplier for police, a deterrent for red-light runners and school-zone speeders and as a source of revenue.
Police Chief Steve Sutton of Lake Forest Park briefed Port Angeles lawmakers Tuesday on his city’s eight-year-old traffic safety camera/photo enforcement program.
The Port Angeles City Council has not yet decided whether to introduce traffic safety cameras locally.
“We use this as a force multiplier,” said Sutton, a former State Patrol captain who once patrolled the North Olympic Peninsula.
“The photo enforcement systems have allowed us to take on other tasks rather than sitting at the red lights or looking at the school zones. We still do those, but not as much as we did.”
Under state law, cities can place automated traffic safety cameras at certain intersections and school zones.
A moving violation caught on camera is reviewed by a law enforcement officer before it is mailed to the vehicle owner.
Infractions detected through the camera systems do not appear on the violator’s driving record, and facial recognition technology is not permitted under the law.
“It’s not Big Brother,” Sutton told the Port Angeles City Council.
“It’s about safety. It’s about collision reduction and that type of stuff. So it really is, to me, a positive for the community.”
The Port Angeles City Council is mulling traffic safety cameras as one of several possible funding options for a code enforcement program.
“We’re somewhat into the process already,” Port Angeles Police Chief Brian Smith told the council.
“We’re working with a vendor because we’ve got a buying agreement with Seattle, as does Lake Forest (Park), so we’ve got some more to tell you when we come back about this.”
After the meeting, Smith said the decision to implement traffic safety cameras would be entirely driven by the council.
“This is just a council-directed first step,” Smith said of Sutton’s presentation.
The Port Angeles City Council voted 4-3 last month to eliminate from consideration a levy lid lift ballot measure that would have raised, if approved, $136,500 annually to fund two part-time code enforcement officers.
The city has been without a code enforcement program since 2012.
The council then directed staff to seek other funding options such as traffic safety cameras, fines and fees from code violations and short-term rental fees.
Lake Forest Park is a small suburban city near Seattle between Shoreline and Kenmore on the north shore of Lake Washington. Its busiest arterials are state Highways 522 (Bothell Way) and 104 (Ballinger Way).
In 2011, Lake Forest Park installed one red-light traffic camera system on a Bothell Way intersection and three speed camera systems in school zones.
The city added one red-light system and one school-zone system in 2015 and a third red-light system in 2018, Sutton said.
“We did some studies and found that the best places to do our camera locations were leading collision areas and around our schools,” Sutton said.
“The goal of the program, really, was to address pedestrian safety, especially around the schools, and then on Bothell Way.”
Sutton estimated that Lake Forest Park issues 15,000 traffic infractions per year from its photo enforcement program.
“In our city, 85 percent of the tickets are not our own residents,” Sutton said.
“I don’t know how that would play out here. We have a commuter population that comes in and out through our school zones, through our red-light cameras.”
Revenue from the traffic infractions is directed to Lake Forest Park safety projects like sidewalks and neighborhood speed bumps.
“My advice is to have a plan for that increased revenue, because there will be increased revenue,” Sutton told the Port Angeles council.
“But have that plan that reinvests into your community instead of just going into the general fund.
“You can use it to pay public safety and you can use it to pay roads, whatever you want, but have a plan that is transparent, again, with the community,” Sutton added.
In a Wednesday interview, Port Angeles Mayor Sissi Bruch said she liked how Lake Forest Park slowly and incrementally developed its traffic safety camera systems.
“It is something that we have been thinking about since we do not have the manpower to really police some of our school areas,” Bruch said.
“I’ve gotten a lot of complaints about folks speeding.”
Lake Forest Park was swamped with public disclosure requests when the city began its photo enforcement program in 2011, Sutton said.
He advised Port Angeles officials, should they launch a similar program, to be transparent with the public and work with those who contest their tickets.
“It’s OK to say we were wrong,” Sutton said.
Lake Forest Park contracts with a third-party vendor that maintains the camera systems and provides expert testimony at mitigation hearings for a flat monthly fee of about $4,700, Sutton said.
A cost neutrality clause ensures that the city will not be charged more than the monthly fee if the system isn’t breaking even, Sutton said.
Sutton said there was a public perception in 2011 that the only goal of the traffic cameras was to make money.
“Really, it is a part of our traffic safety mission to reduce collisions and improve pedestrian safety,” Sutton said.
”It’s about the safety of our community. And unless the community, the council and city leadership all buy into it, the program won’t work.”
Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56450, or at [email protected].