By Shelby Sebens | Northwest Watchdog
PORTLAND – Police in Oregon and Washington want to expand the reach of red light cameras to catch the really bad guys – murderers, child abductors, armed robbers.
Both state legislatures are considering proposals that would eliminate provisions in the state laws that keep police from using the cameras for anything but red light running.
Police say they just want to use it to catch felons.
In Washington, police say being able to use the license plate image captured by red light cameras might have helped them catch a suspect in the drive-by shooting of a 21-year-old woman in Seattle. As the law stands now, police can only use the image to enforce traffic infractions.
But civil liberties advocates fear changing the red light camera law is one step closer to broadening government surveillance.
‘It’s a real slippery slope,” American Civil Liberties Union of Washington spokesman Doug Honig said. “The idea was these cameras should not become general surveillance systems for law enforcement, and now that’s the general direction they’re moving in. It’s known as ‘mission creep.’”
Oregon’s House Judiciary committee will hold a public hearing at 1 p.m. Thursday on HB 2601.
Beaverton Police Chief Geoff Spalding said the impetus of the bill came when he got a call from a fellow police chief wanting to know if they could check red light camera photos for a suspected bank robber. The law doesn’t allow it.
Spalding said police have no interest in using it for minor crimes.
“We are not interested in low-level type things,” he said. “We’re not looking for people that don’t have their seatbelt on, talking on their phone.”
But the bill is broad as it is written now, completely eliminating any restriction on the use of red light camera photos. Spalding said he expects an amendment will be added to just allow for the use in serious criminal investigations.
It’s an uncomfortable move for the ACLU of Oregon, which is working with lawmakers to narrow the bill.
Becky Straus, ACLU Oregon legislative director, said it’s concerning when the state sets up surveillance for a specific purpose but then brings it back to the legislature to start expanding the reach.
“It just seems to be creeping ever so slowly toward a surveillance state,” Straus said.
She added that the organization also is keeping an eye on Senate Bill 787, which would allow school districts to put cameras on buses. She said often times surveillance legislation is pushed through on an individualized situation that seems like a good idea but can be a slippery slope.
“We really encourage our lawmakers to look at these things comprehensively and think about what it means to have a camera on every school bus or a camera on every intersection and who has access to that information,” she said.
Spalding said he understands some people might have concerns about big brother keeping watch, but he thinks police should be able to use those photos if they can help catch felons.
“I don’t think anybody had intended to exclude serious criminal acts,” he said of the original red light camera law.