Police chief wants to use red light cameras to nab criminals

Police chief wants to use red light cameras to nab criminals »Play Video

BEAVERTON, Ore. – The Oregon Legislature is considering a bill that would allow police and prosecutors to tap into the traffic camera system to investigate hit-and-runs, armed robberies and murders.

The debate pits public safety against privacy.

Right now, the red light cameras can only be used to document a driver running a red light. If a murder suspect flees from the scene and runs a red light, the photo from the camera is off limits to police. Beaverton's police chief, Geoff Spalding, is leading the push to change that.

He says the cameras could be the key to catching criminals.

"We're only looking for the criminal activity of someone who just robbed a bank that's gone through the system, a potential Amber Alert with a suspect and a victim in a car, a homicide – those types of things," he said.

House Bill 2601 would end the prohibition on police using red light cameras for criminal investigations.

Washington state lawmakers are considering similar legislation after the shooting death of 21-year-old Nicole Westbrook in Seattle's Pioneer Square last April. Surveillance video from a nearby store captured the suspect's car passing by, but police could not turn to red light cameras to search for a license plate.

The American Civil Liberties Union argues those limits protect people's privacy.

"There are always arguments that if police had more powers, if they had drones, if they had you name it, they could solve more crimes," said Doug Honig with the ACLU of Washington. "When these cameras started out, the government made very clear assurances, oh, we're not going to use it that way. And we don't think they should change now."

Spalding says police understand the need to balance people's privacy and public safety.

"It's not a random thing where we're just going to randomly monitor the images," he said. "It's only when we have a known case where we suspect that we might have had the person responsible for a crime going through the intersection."

But some worry allowing police to use the cameras will lead to tickets for talking or texting on a cellphone while driving or not wearing a seat belt.

Spalding says that's not the intent of the law.

"It's not a fight that I'm interested in taking up," he said.

In Oregon, lawmakers are also discussing an amendment that would limit when police could turn to red light cameras for an investigation. It could be just for felonies, or felonies and misdemeanors.