Thursday, October 23, 2014


Cover Story

Flip the Switch!

7/31/2013

In primitive times, people of some cultures believed that the camera steals the soul. Some say that belief stemmed from the superstition that revealing identifying things, such as your name or likeness, gives the ill-intended all they need to work their voodoo on you. In that case, have any of us a soul left?

Seemingly everywhere you look there is a camera aiming at you from atop a post or a corner of a building — monitoring the general public as if we’re all potential criminals. Don’t we, as a people, have an inherent right to our own privacy, even in a public setting?

We think so. That’s why we applaud the Clive City Council’s July 18 move to not renew its contract with Phoenix, Ariz.-based Redflex Traffic Systems. We consider it a victory for personal freedom and privacy, and we make no apologies for our blatant lack of impartiality on this controversial issue. Sometimes right is right and wrong is wrong, and it’s as simple as that. In this case, the government’s use of traffic cameras is wrong, and a statewide ban on them is necessary and urgent.

Traffic cameras not only invade our privacy but also our rights afforded to us by the United States Constitution. That’s something we don’t take lightly, and neither should any American citizen.

To be fair, we’ve heard the other side of the argument, and, frankly, we find it disappointing. How pathetic, cowardly and gravely gullible that point of view is, and we’re embarrassed for those who have it. To them, we ask, where is your patriotism? Where is your principle? Where is your damn backbone?

DM Art Center

People who aren’t outraged about being monitored by the government that we elect and fund are dangerously naïve. So smugly we hear it repeated: “Well, if you’re not doing anything wrong, then why does it matter?” Glad you asked, actually. Here’s why it matters:

                 

1. IT’S A SLIPPERY SLOPE.

They say history repeats. It does. The more you give away to the government, the more the government will take. We learned this life lesson in childhood. If you let the bully take your brownie at lunchtime, he’s going to take it the next day, too. Then he’ll go for your grapes and your grilled cheese. Then he takes your milk, leaving you hungry and without. So it’s better to let that injustice be the fuel to light that fire in your belly, pull you to your feet in spite of your stature and fear to go nose to nose with the brute and say, “Not this time. This has gone on long enough.” And if you go down, go down swinging, defending yourself, defending your rights. Even if you lose the battle, at least you’ve sent him a new message — a powerful one: You cannot take from me without a fight. You are not entitled to what is rightfully mine.

“It’s my fundamental belief that it’s an improper use of government authority,” asserted Clive city councilmen Ted Weaver, who has been consistent in his opposition to the traffic cameras there. “It’s a slippery slope issue. You can already see it around the metro now. In time cameras will be used to cite people for lane changing violations, turning signal violations, seatbelt violations. It’s not going to contract. And I don’t want to see that type of expansion.”

The expansion he speaks of is known quite well by Europeans. Since the installation of its so-called “Ring of Steel” surveillance system in 1998, the London government has grown its network to include nearly a half-million cameras, roadblocks and license plate-readers monitoring the city, according to CNN. As far as examples of government surveillance of its people, it’s one of the most advanced in the world. The city’s police admit that only one crime was solved for every 1,000 cameras in a year’s time, and the cameras cost more than $800 million during the past five years.

It would be foolish to think Britain isn’t heading down a dangerous path and naïve to say we’re not following in its wake. Windsor Heights is chomping at the bit to have speed cameras installed along its section of I-235, but the city’s application was denied by the Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT) last year, so the city filed a law suit against the state.

“It’s the most problematic roadway in our community,” explained Windsor Heights Police Chief Dennis McDaniel. “We had over 500 service calls to that area in 2012. As a small police department, we could utilize that technology and have a constant presence on the interstate.”

But the DOT said speed might not even be the problem. A $6 million project is underway to relieve congestion along the on/off ramps, which might prove to be effective, DOT District 1 engineer Scott Dockstader said.

“We don’t feel (the City of Windsor Heights) looked at other options. They just jumped straight to speed cameras,” Dockstader said. “People need a more holistic approach. The public expects the DOT to have rules and guidelines in place, so not just anyone can slap a camera up anywhere.”

The City of Des Moines already has four fixed speed cameras on I-235, one for each lane of traffic between 56th Street and 42nd. Since their installation two years ago, the city has issued 57,726 citations for speed and red-light infractions combined. It’s collected about $2.6 million in total fees, and about $1.2 million remain unpaid, according to an April 2013 traffic report.

                 

2. IT’S A MATTER OF VIRTUE.

It’s difficult to understand the simplistic mindset of “if you’re not doing anything wrong, then who cares if the government is watching you?” Have we learned nothing as a human race? Did we fail to listen to our grandparents’ stories — or fail to pay attention in history class in school — citing real examples of why a people should never put too much trust and power in the hands of the government? It’s not paranoid; it’s prudent. It’s not about one’s innocence or guilt. We have a judicial system to handle that. This is about principle, integrity, liberty. It’s about maintaining our rights, as our ancestors did for us, so their efforts, heartaches and sacrifices were not in vain. And so the next generation has rights of virtue as well. It’s sickening and sad that even one person out there doesn’t realize the gravity of what is seemingly such a small thing.

CVA_01PAGE 19We get it. Clive city councilmen Tim Weaver and Michael McCoy get it. Sen. Brad Zaun gets it. During the past legislative session, Zaun (R-Urbandale) proposed a bill to eliminate traffic cameras statewide.

“I’m always hearing from so many different Iowans that they’re unhappy about (traffic cameras) and mostly about the proliferation of them. And I personally believe that they are unconstitutional,” he told Cityview. “It goes against the ‘innocent until proven guilty’ idea this country was founded on.”

Yes it does. Anger over being treated like a criminal is justified. That’s why we also applaud the citizens of Iowa City who last year formed a petition calling for their city council to either pass an ordinance banning traffic cameras or send the issue to a public vote. The ordinance passed through its seven-member council unanimously, banning the unmanned technology (including speed and red-light cameras, drones and automatic license-plate readers) before it was even implemented, KCCI reported in June. As far as we know, Iowa City is the first in the nation to pass such an ordinance.

That’s a start, but we support Sen. Zaun in his crusade for a statewide ban. His 2013 bill (SF 19, HF 477) went 100-percent along party lines last spring to be voted down.

“Which is really unfortunate,” he said. “Because this is not a Republican/Democrat issue. This is more of a generational thing, I think. The older people kind of like them — some of the older people don’t — but younger people can’t stand these things.”

Zaun vowed to bring the bill back to the table for reconsideration at next year’s legislative session.

“There will be legislation sometime in the near future that will kill or completely eliminate traffic cameras in Iowa,” he said. “We’re seeing a lot of these things going on across the country. Other states are shutting these cameras off.”

                 

3. IT’S AN EXERCISE IN HYPOCRISY.

Perhaps shutting them off isn’t the answer. Maybe we just have the cameras pointed in the wrong direction. Our government uses cameras to monitor the comings and goings of its constituents and issues us citations for infractions, but when the lens is pointed their way, they are exempt.

CVA_01PAGE 18The Iowa DOT reports that 3,218 special license plates have been issued to local, state and federal officials, which allows them to break traffic laws under the eye of the camera without getting a ticket. The idea is to protect state employees from citations while they are conducting undercover or otherwise sensitive work. More than 350 government agencies use them, most of which are police forces, but others include the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, which has 210 compared to 140 issued to the Iowa State Patrol and 170 to the Des Moines Police Department, the Iowa Lottery (48), the Department of Human Services (22) and the Internal Revenue Service (14). (See full list HERE.)

While a few of those might be necessary for sensitive operations, might some of the vehicles also be used by off-duty employees, and might some belong to employees whose on-the-clock duties rarely — if at all — warrant the need to speed and run through red lights? Such was the case when Gov. Terry Branstad’s SUV license plate came back “not on file” when cops clocked his driver far exceeding the speed limit a few weeks ago. How many other traffic violations occurred that day, and other days, blessed by the shield of a double-standard exemption?

The hypocrisy certainly doesn’t end with our governor. History has proven that our government is far more of a threat — terroristic or otherwise — to its citizens than its citizens are to it. So let’s install surveillance cameras in government workspaces — from the mayor and city clerks’ offices in small town, U.S.A., to the Oval Office in the White House. Let’s broadcast their surveillance over public television 24/7. Perhaps then the cameras would truly do a public service and act as a deterrent to real crime — crime that affects an entire voting public, not just a stretch of road. Just imagine what we would see.

                 

4. THE LACK OF ACCOUNTABILITY IS UNJUST.

The fact that some government officials are exempt from this law is a case in our next point: the blatant lack of accountability these cameras allow. A photo of my license plate does not prove that I was the one behind the wheel committing the violation. So I must pay a fine for someone else’s crime, though it did not involve property damage? By that thinking, the law is saying that it doesn’t really matter who committed the crime as long as someone hangs for it.

“Ticketing the owner of the car instead of the person that did the illegal maneuver is significantly unfair,” said Stivers Ford president Scott Politte. Stivers has paid out about $1,500 per year in fines owed since the Clive cameras were installed. Each was for $100 for red-light violations made by customers either test-driving or loaning Stivers cars with dealership plates, Politte said.

“And the fact that it doesn’t affect the driver’s record, which is something used to calculate insurance rates and detect dangerous drivers, means no public safety concerns are addressed,” he added. “I’d like to see a ban ordinance. (These cameras) are a nuisance, and I don’t think they prevent anything.”

                 

5. PUBLIC SAFETY IS PROPAGANDA.

Calling the use of traffic cameras a public safety measure is merely a convenient guise. On the surface, it’s a believable one, but follow the money, and see it for what it is: a business, a fundraising program, and, in the words of our forefathers, it is taxation without representation — $700,000 worth of it every year for motorists on Hickman Road alone, according to Clive City records.

“I recognize that public safety is beneficial, but after the city council voted to not renew, all they have discussed was how to come up with that $600,000 or so to fill that hole,” said Zaun. “Traffic laws are there to be obeyed, but these traffic cameras are more about generating revenue. They have data that shows it does not make an intersection safer, because there is an increase in rear-end collisions as a result of people slamming on their breaks afraid to get caught by the camera.”

Whether or not a person believes the cameras make a roadway — or a society — safer with the cameras turned off, the City of Clive admittedly will lose approximately $700,000 in revenue. That’s 700,000 incentives to advocate for a publicly-denounced practice. Those in control of how that money is spent have an obvious vested interest in keeping the money machine rolling, thus they fail to be objective in this debate.

The Iowa City employees and the Clive councilmen who have balked at the use of traffic cameras are doing so objectively, for the right reasons. There’s no doubt their intentions are pure. Of course they want their city streets to be safer. Of course they want more funding. So why are they still maintaining their opposition? Because they are honest people and true patriots. Because they respect their constituents’ right to privacy and the necessity of accountability in the law.

“From the beginning, we’ve said that it’s not about the revenue; it’s about safety. So if it’s not about the revenue, then the loss of that $700,000 is a moot point,” Weaver said. “We’re currently losing $700,000 a year in revenue, but the fact that we’re budgeting for that and that, in essence, we’ve become operationally dependent on that source of revenue is problematic in itself.

“We’re budgeting for illegal activity that may or may not happen even though our stated goal is to drop that number to zero. It’s paradoxical in its very nature.”

Paradoxical and dangerously irresponsible.

Here applies one of American history’s greatest quotes, said grandly and with clenched fist by the revered Martin Luther King Jr.: “A threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We need more Dr. Kings in this world.

We ask that our readers — all our readers, regardless of what side of the debate you’re on — remember those words so wisely handed down to the advocates of Civil Rights 50 years ago. Because they are as true today as they’ve ever been, and it’s up to us to pass down such patriotism to the next generation, so that they don’t conform to injustice ignorantly, so that they understand the importance of having and maintaining one’s principle and so that they value the U.S. Constitution as the sacred doctrine it is and bravely stand up for their rights despite fear and opposition, otherwise they’ll be taken away while we’re not looking. Think about it. Flip the switch. CV