Texas PD may get LIDAR with video cameras

By Theodore Kim
The Dallas Morning News

Plano could soon become one of the nation's first cities to equip police with laser speed guns that also capture video.

Police say the handheld equipment would provide courts with indisputable evidence that speeders would find difficult to contest.

In a broader sense, the technology could open up new ways for patrols to crack down on road infractions that are harder to document, such as aggressive driving and tailgating.

But the proposal, still far from finalized, is already spawning questions. City officials have asked Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott to clarify whether the video equipment would run afoul of a state law that prohibits cities from using automated cameras to catch speeders.

The camera guns, which cost as much as $6,000 apiece, are nearly three times the cost of the laser guns that police currently use. Moreover, Plano's proposal comes as other kinds of traffic cameras, such as those meant to catch red-light runners, have met a backlash.

Authorities in Plano tried to make a clear distinction between the video-equipped guns they are considering and the automated traffic cameras that have drawn criticism.

The proposed camera guns are not automated, but operated by police in the field. As such, their purpose is not to replace patrols or catch more speeders, but to give police the chance to collect irrefutable evidence of traffic violations that unfold in front of them.

"Many times when we stop someone, the citizen doesn't think that they committed a violation," Plano Police Chief Greg Rushin said. "This will help us with the evidence."

Of the more than 16,000 speeding citations issued in Plano in the current fiscal year, 79 have been contested, court statistics show.

Few adopters

Few, if any, Texas cities are believed to have adopted the video-equipped guns. Colorado-based Laser Technology Inc., one of the only vendors to sell the equipment, introduced its version this year. In addition to video, the laser guns also snap a high-resolution photo of the vehicle as it approaches.

Paul Adkins, marketing and communications coordinator for Laser Technology, estimated that about a dozen communities nationwide had adopted the company's camera guns. He could not provide a list of those cities.

A law enforcement agency in Colorado, the Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office, has tested one of the camera guns for some months now, Lt. Michael Madziarek said.

He said the video function provides "one extra visual" aid to help authorities catch speeders. Yet he said the technology is not a replacement for police judgment.

"It puts more of a picture to the whole story. We're moving into a video-type age where almost everything is on video now," Madziarek said. "But it's still up to the officer to determine whether there was a violation."

Video is, indeed, becoming more central to law enforcement. Cameras in patrol cars have become commonplace. Beyond that, communities in some 23 states have installed red-light cameras. Twelve states permit automated speed cameras.

Video's growing popularity, however, has led to charges that traffic cameras of any kind invade privacy and are installed primarily to generate revenue.

Opponents have directed most of the criticism at red-light cameras. In Texas alone, cities have collected more than $103 million since the state's revised red-light camera law took effect in 2007.

Authorities are sensitive to the notion that the camera-equipped guns could face similar public scrutiny. As the technology develops, Rushin said, he could foresee a day when Plano police use handheld video cameras to help pull over aggressive drivers.

Plano police have requested $89,000 to purchase 16 video-equipped speed guns, according to a preliminary proposal. The money would likely come from extra monies generated by Plano's red-light camera efforts, Rushin said.

The request still requires approval from the city manager's office and Plano's City Council.

Legal question

State Rep. Vicki Truitt, R-Keller, last month sent a letter to Abbott on Plano's behalf to clarify whether the camera guns would violate state law.

Truitt helped pass the 2007 law prohibiting cities from using automated speed cameras. But she said she did not intend the law to interfere with other technologies, such as the video-equipped speed guns.

Abbott typically does not comment on rulings or opinions before they are published. A spokesman for his office declined to comment. A ruling is expected sometime early next year.

Copyright 2010 The Dallas Morning News

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