FORT WORTH (CBS I-TEAM) - Cities spend millions of taxpayer dollars a year employing companies to run red light camera programs, and those cities expect you to pay up.
But the CBS 11 I-Team uncovered some of those cities aren't practicing what they preach. Case in point, the City of Arlington.
After several months of requesting information from the City of Arlington, the CBS 11 I-Team was able to obtain records and videos associated with the city's red light camera program.
The information specifically targets outstanding tickets issued to city and county-registered vehicles in North Texas. These are all drivers who have refused to pay their fines, while driving vehicles paid for by your tax dollars.
Here are just a few examples of what we uncovered:
· 2014 – A City of Fort Worth Police Officer turns left on red, speeding up to beat the red light (unsuccessfully). For weeks, the CBS 11 I-Team has been asking about the outstanding fine, with no explanation or resolution from the City of Fort Worth.
· 2014 – A vehicle from the City of Garland runs a red light. To date, the city has yet to give us an explanation as to why the ticket hadn't been paid.
· 2013 – A Fort Worth maintenance truck races through a red light. The city has been sent three fine notices and has yet to pay up. For weeks, the CBS 11 I-Team has been asking about the outstanding fine, with no explanation or resolution from the City of Fort Worth.
· 2010 – Kennedale's City Manager, Bob Hart, says they have no plans to pay their red light camera ticket. Reason 1 – They can't positively figure out who the driver was. Reason 2 – They do not plan to spend "public money on such a citation."
· 2009 – Tarrant County MHMR van turns right on red without coming to a complete stop. Agency leaders say their policy is to pay these tickets as soon as they come in, then recoup their costs from employees later. However, this ticket, somehow, fell through the cracks. As a result of our investigation, the agency has agreed to work with the City of Arlington to take care of the matter.
· 2009 - An Arlington Handi-Tran bus that shuttles senior citizens and the disabled blows through a red light. The city is now refusing to pay the fine issued by its own police department, saying they can't figure out who the driver was.
· 2008 – A Dallas Police Officer receives a red light camera ticket, but doesn't pay it. As a result of our investigation, Dallas city leaders have agreed to reach out to the City of Arlington to get things squared away.
In cases where the video showed an officer breaking the red light camera laws, no lights or sirens were present to indicate the officer might have been heading to an emergency.
"It's going to be a problem," Will Nolen, an Arlington driver who recently got a red light camera ticket, told us. "This is all about money for the city."
Drivers like Kelly Cannon and Nolen are angry about the driving double standard the CBS 11 I-Team uncovered.
"For people like me that did pay it, I was a little upset with that," Cannon said. "Because, you know, it's not fair to those people who aren't paying because they know better. And now I know better."
The I-Team reached out to every council member in Arlington to talk with them about the video we uncovered. The only one who supports the camera system and was willing to talk with us was Charlie Parker, District 1 Councilman.
"I feel as though the cameras are, in fact, reducing the number of injuries on our streets," Parker explained. "Rear end crashes are down significantly and right angle crashes are also down."
Parker didn't have a lot to say about other cities refusing to pay their tickets. But he did reveal to us that Arlington employees get a special opportunity to plead their case.
"In the event that there is an infraction, a procedure is utilized and forms are filled out to try to explain why that particular infraction was caught on camera," Parker noted. "And if that is not satisfactory to whatever department that had the infraction, then they should be subject to the fine. It's that simple."
But they're not the only ones potentially getting special treatment.
Texas law says police vehicles are exempt from receiving a red light camera ticket, regardless of whether they're responding to an emergency.
After several attempts to set up an interview with Chief Will Johnson about this program, CBS 11 I-Team Investigative Reporter Mireya Villarreal stopped by the police department to get answers.
· 2012 - 26 Arlington officers were disciplined for breaking the red light camera laws
· 2013 - 25 officers were disciplined
· 2014 – 17 officers have been disciplined so far
To date, none have had to pay their fines.
After just six minutes of waiting for someone to come and talk with us, our crew was asked to leave.
Arlington Police Department's Public Information Office followed up by sending the CBS 11 I-Team "talking points" they've used at several of their city and town hall meetings.
The CBS 11 I-Team also tried to get someone from the city to better explain the red light camera polices in Arlington.
Jay Warren, Arlington's Marketing and Communications Director, refused to talk with us on camera or provide anyone from the city. "Given the direction of your questions at this juncture, I do not believe that we would have anything to add to what Lt. Cook has provided you," he said in an email.
The city admits they do not have a written policy on the cameras, but are reaching out to other cities to find out what they do in situations like this.
"That obviously is surprising," Arlington Councilman Robert Rivera said in reaction to our information.
Councilman Rivera has been trying to get the Arlington City Council to have a bigger discussion about the red light camera program.
"We have a camera system in Arlington that is not fair and equitable across the board. Meaning that you have some people that pay the fines and some that do not," Rivera added.
Rivera had no idea the city's own employees were getting special treatment. But he has every intention of finding out why.
Arlington Isn't Alone
The CBS 11 I-Team reached out to the cities of Fort Worth and Plano, requesting similar information regarding outstanding tickets issued to city and county-registered vehicles.
Fort Worth had four cases from March 2010 through May 2014, where Tarrant County vehicles were issued red light camera violation notices. When CBS 11 I-Team Reporter Mireya Villarreal asked to see the videos associated with those cases, Fort Worth asked the Texas Attorney General to allow them to withhold the information.
Three outstanding violations issued to the City of Dallas also turned up in Plano. The red light camera notifications were sent out between August 2009 and November 2012. Similar to Fort Worth, Plano city leaders asked the Texas Attorney General to allow them to withhold the information.
Show Me The Money
There's no doubt, this is a huge money maker for cities that use the system with little effort on their part.
Since 2011, red light cameras in Arlington have generated $8,257,404.51 in net revenue for the city. They've paid $5,248,587.20 to the company that owns the cameras, monitors the videos and runs the system. Plano has netted $10,208,112.20 since 2011 and paid their program vendor $4,555,559.33. While Fort Worth has seen $10,124,256.67 in profits since 2011, they've given their vendor $12,110,556.41.
But as the revenue has increased, so have the outstanding fines. In 2014, Arlington issued 98,854 red light camera notices; to date, 28,333 have not been paid. Plano has issued 39,865 red light camera notices this year, with just 9,839 gone unpaid. But, by far, Fort Worth has seen the biggest backlog in 2014. This year they've sent out 143,178 fine notices, but still have 72,424 outstanding.
The Fight To Remove The Cameras
In Arlington, there is currently a group of residents collecting signatures to have the red light cameras removed.
Kelly Cannon and Will Nolen are just two of the drivers actively protesting the cameras and pushing to get the issue put on Arlington's election ballot in May 2015.
The group needs approximately 9,600 signatures and currently has more than 3,000. Similar petitions have been successful in College Station and Houston.
The Red-Light Law Can Get Grey
The law that guides cities on their red light camera programs is Texas Transportation Code 707.0021. The code was adjusted in 2009, to make "authorized emergency vehicles" exempt from receiving red light camera fines.
Several vehicles fit the definition of an "authorized emergency vehicle" in Texas. For example: a "private vehicle of a volunteer firefighter or a certified emergency medical services employee or volunteer when responding to a fire alarm or medical emergency" and "a public or private ambulance operated by a person who has been issued a license by the Department of State Health Services".
But the Transportation Code is vague when referring to police vehicles. The exact wording in section 541.201 is "a fire department or police vehicle." That's it. There's no reference to responding to emergencies, turning on lights and sirens, or even being on patrol.
City leaders in Arlington and Dallas both fall back on the all-encompassing Transportation Code to explain why their police officers run red lights, but don't pay their fines.
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