The high-tech cameras used by Wichita police to monitor crime and potential crime in Old Town are a needed component of public safety for the city’s top entertainment district.
When those cameras are used to identify and catch traffic violations, it raises questions about fairness and whether the city has created a revenue stream on the backs of those who live and work in Old Town and those who visit the district for entertainment. The “Big Brother” feeling intensifies.
Daytime drivers in the Old Town area the past two weeks have noticed parked police cruisers, waiting for instructions from colleagues back at City Hall. The City Hall employees watch monitors that stream video from the Old Town cameras and alert the officers of traffic violations such as rolling stops, running red lights, improper turns and other offenses.
(Transparency note: Employees of The Wichita Eagle are among those who have been ticketed.)
Sgt. Kelly O’Brien told reporters he hoped people didn’t perceive it as “Big Brother.” “It’s just a way for officers to enhance their abilities to protect the community and improve traffic safety and also improve officer safety,” he said.
“Protect the community” through issuing a citation to a driver who didn’t turn into the first available lane?
“Improve traffic safety” by pulling someone over who didn’t come to a full stop with no traffic around?
Yes, those are legitimate traffic offenses. But many of those citations are begging for a challenge in court.
Police are confident that video recordings of traffic offenses will stand up to challenges. But in a recent Kansas.com video about the system, a police staffer is seen monitoring at least six cameras at once.
Can his attention be solely on one monitor? Those staffers will feel pressure to be 100-percent correct in their video analysis. If it gets to court, it will have all the makings of an NFL replay review: ruling is confirmed, ruling is overturned.
Then there’s selective enforcement. Using cameras to bust drivers means different enforcement in different areas of the city. Failing to come to a complete stop at the relatively quiet intersection of Third and Mead in Old Town can be much more harmful to your driving record than at any other stop sign outside Old Town. Is that fair?
Without camera monitoring at other places within the city, there’s a real chance Old Town could see business suffer because drivers avoid the area – just as sober drivers try to avoid mandatory checkpoints on weekend nights.
Police say they’ve already seen fewer traffic stops because drivers know the cameras are watching. But is that because we’re being better drivers or because we avoid the area?
The Old Town camera system’s primary purpose – keeping people in a popular entertainment district safe from crime and catching those who commit criminal acts – is needed. The cameras helped police last week locate a man who allegedly beat up another man. Cameras make Old Town safer and give customers a sense of security.
But “Big Brother” is watching at other times. Wichita drivers will decide if it’s worth the concern of a traffic stop to shop in Old Town or enjoy its nightlife.