ProPublica: ‘Race-Neutral’ Traffic Cameras Still Racist — More Tickets for Majority-Black ZIP Codes


A recent investigation by the left-wing ProPublica laments that speed cameras are disproportionately ticketing black drivers in cities such as Chicago, even though the technology allows for race-neutral enforcement.

The investigation concluded that drivers from mostly-black neighborhoods are receiving more than twice as many citations from the automated technology than drivers from mostly-white neighborhoods. Authors Emily Hopkins and Melissa Sanchez frame this data point with an activist’s claim that a “punitive approach” to traffic safety laws still upholds “structural racism”:

For all of their safety benefits, the hundreds of cameras that dot the city — and generate tens of millions of dollars a year for City Hall — have come at a steep cost for motorists from the city’s black and Latino neighborhoods. A ProPublica analysis of millions of citations found that households in majority Black and Hispanic ZIP codes received tickets at around twice the rate of those in white areas between 2015 and 2019.

The consequences have been especially punishing in black neighborhoods, which have been hit with more than half a billion dollars in penalties over the last 15 years, contributing to thousands of vehicle impoundments, driver’s license suspensions and bankruptcies, according to ProPublica’s analysis.

The coronavirus pandemic widened the ticketing disparities. Black and Latino workers have been far less likely than others to have jobs that allow them to work remotely, forcing them into their vehicles more often. In 2020, ProPublica found, the ticketing rate for households in majority-Black ZIP codes jumped to more than three times that of households in majority-white areas. For households in majority-Hispanic ZIP codes, there was an increase, but it was much smaller.

ProPublica noted that it did not count warnings for first-time violators “because they carry no financial penalties.”

The story also includes the extreme example of Rodney Perry, an entrepreneur who received three tickets for running red lights and eight for speeding in a single year, at one point receiving an immobilizing boot on his wheels. Cameras issued many of those citations because Mayor Lori Lightfoot “lowered the threshold for tickets” down to six or seven mph over the speed limit.

“Perry said he takes responsibility for getting tickets,” the ProPublica report said. “But he can’t help but notice something every time he drives through majority-Black neighborhoods: There are fewer pedestrians and more vacant lots and industrial areas.

This Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013 file photo shows a pair of traffic cameras aimed on Vine Street, in Elmwood Place, Ohio. People suing the Cincinnati-area village over speeding tickets generated by a camera system want a judge to rule in their favor without trial, filing a motion for summary judgement on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Al Behrman, File)

This Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013 file photo shows a pair of traffic cameras aimed on Vine Street, in Elmwood Place, Ohio. (AP Photo/Al Behrman, File)

“It’s almost like you feel like there is nothing there. Nothing to slow you down,” Perry said.

And ProPublica found experts who agree roads, not people, are to blame. Jesus Barajas, an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy at the University of California Davis claimed, “wide roads without what are often called calming measures … encourage speeding.”

A 2020 article in the Insurance Journal highlighted the history of ticketing American drivers using cameras, including the idea that “PhotoCops” would only penalize people based on violating traffic laws and not because of the color of their skin.

The report noted that speed cameras were first installed in Galveston County, Texas, in 1986 but despite spreading around the country since then, there are “only 153 jurisdictions in 17 states that use speed cameras, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, with almost a third of those in one state, Maryland.

The report quoted what a reporter wrote in Vice magazine. “Any effort to eliminate racism in American policing must figure out what to do about traffic enforcement, which is the leading cause of interactions between police and the public, according to the Department of Justice,” the article said. “And, by law, it is almost entirely up to the officer whether to let the person go with a warning, give them a ticket, ask to search their vehicle, or escalate the situation even further. It is an interaction intentionally designed to let the officer do virtually whatever he or she wants, reflecting the inherent biases of our legal system.”

The Journal report continued:

There’s lots of evidence that law enforcement traffic stops disproportionately target Black motorists, and not a whole lot of counter-evidence (although there is some). Even after controlling for multiple possible confounding factors, the bias seems to persist. Perhaps most tellingly, it is less apparent at night, when it’s harder to see what drivers look like. In 2016, South Carolina U.S. Senator Tim Scott, a conservative Black Republican not exactly known as a critic of law enforcement, described how earlier in his political career he had been pulled over seven times in a single year, usually for “nothing more than driving a new car in the wrong neighborhood or some other reason just as trivial.”

More-widespread use of speed and red-light cameras wouldn’t eliminate this practice, as there would still be lots of other reasons to pull over drivers. But it would surely reduce its incidence. It would also result in more consistent, fair and comprehensive enforcement of traffic laws.

Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot arrives at Wrigley Field on April 16, 2020 in Chicago Illinois. Wrigley Field has been converted to a temporary satellite food packing and distribution center in cooperation with the Lakeville Food Pantry to support ongoing relief efforts underway in the city as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot arrives at Wrigley Field on April 16, 2020, in Chicago Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

ProPublica reported that Chicago issues approximately one million camera tickets — about evenly split between the two types of infractions — and that cameras have generated more than $1.3 billion in revenue since the first one was installed nearly two decades ago.

All this under Democrat Mayors Richard M. Daley, Rahm Emanuel, and current Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

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