Federal Way police chief responds to camera criticisms

This sign is posted on 1st Avenue South near Winco. - Andy Hobbs/Federal Way Mirror
This sign is posted on 1st Avenue South near Winco.
— image credit: Andy Hobbs/Federal Way Mirror

Federal Way Police Chief Brian Wilson gave a report to the city council on Sept. 18 regarding photo enforcement systems at three local school zones.

A recent letter to the editor published in The Mirror, along with subsequent broadcast reports from Seattle news stations, has many wondering if the school zone cameras are truly accomplishing their stated purpose, or if they're an easy way for the city to fill its coffers by issuing expensive tickets to unsuspecting drivers.

According to Wilson, there is no sinister purpose for the use of the cameras, beyond increasing safety in school zones.

"Several of our public schools in the City of Federal Way face a significant issue with speeding vehicles in and around school zones. We have 23 public and private school zones in the city, and given the nature of three of these school zones, we placed cameras at those three locations," Wilson said.

"The primary reasons are speed in those areas, the fact that it's a multi-lane, either four- or five-lane roadway. Our goal is to increase the safety of our children in these high-volume, high-violation school zone areas."

Data on school zones

The three school zones in question are Panther Lake, Twin Lakes and Saghalie. According to data compiled by Federal Way police:

• Since the installation of the photo enforcement systems in 2009, the Panther Lake Elementary School zone on 1st Avenue South continues to be biggest trouble spot, with 5,995 citations issued between January and June of this year.

• The Twin Lakes Elementary School zone on SW 320th Street saw approximately 2,000 citations issued since the beginning of 2012.

• The Saghalie Middle School zone on 21st Avenue South has seen approximately 1,800 citations issued for the same timespan.

• Panther Lake also outstrips the other two school zones for total violations dating back to 2009. In the three years the photo enforcement system has been in place at Panther Lake, almost 10,000 speeding violations have occurred at that location.

Issues with the cameras

Numbers aside, and the need for increased safety that they would imply, Wilson conceded that there have been some issues with some of the school zone systems in the past couple of years.

"Two of the school zones, at Saghalie and Twin Lakes, were on a system that was a time clock system. We had very high accuracy with it, but there were some problems, sometimes, where the timing wouldn't be exact," Wilson said, noting that when issues arose, the city would take steps to dismiss those tickets or not have them processed.

"Panther Lake was unique in that…the cameras and the lights are hardwired together, so that one will not operate without the other," he said.

One of the biggest complaints against the photo enforcement systems at the school zones is that often times, it seems that drivers receive citations when the flashing lights are not on. Or, drivers will argue their case that if the photo doesn't catch the flashing lights, then the proof of a speeding violation seems non-existent.

Wilson said that improvements have been made to all three systems to ensure that proof of the flashing lights is included in any photo for a citation.

Because Panther Lake continues to be a trouble spot, the city installed more lights to inform drivers that they are approaching a school zone.

"We added six lights to the Panther Lake site to advise drivers that they're coming into an area where a school zone is coming up," Wilson explained. "We've made adjustments to all of the cameras over this time period, to where you can see the lights in the image from the camera…Overall, we're very confident in the system, how it's operating, and we continue to take steps to enhance and improve upon the system."

Wilson said that Federal Way police and the city both recognize that this is an ongoing process of improvement, but that once again, all of it is being done to increase safety as much as possible.

"The primary issue is safety. For example, with Panther Lake, from the time it was initiated back in 2009, we've had 9,853 speed violations. That's a concern. That's way too high," he concluded.


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