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Is red-light camera bill unsettling?

Civil rights advocates are wary of a bill introduced in the Oregon Legislature that could expand police use of red-light cameras.

The bill, which is being reviewed by Oregon's House Judiciary Committee, would lift restrictions on red-light cameras that limit their use to speeders and drivers who blow through red lights.

The proposed language would allow police to use the cameras to capture evidence for other moving violations and more serious crimes.

The concern is that expanded surveillance by law enforcement could create a Big Brother atmosphere anytime you leave your house.

"Increasing surveillance could erode public trust in law enforcement," said Becky Straus, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, which is working with the Legislature to scale back the bill's parameters.

"This is one of those instances when we have worked closely with proponents of a bill to narrow it down," Straus said. "The concern is that we will have a creeping in of a surveillance state if we keep expanding the use of these cameras."

In the end, the ACLU hopes the bill will allow the red-light cameras to be used only in serious felonies and not for more driving violations or civil matters.

"I'd say we are cautiously neutral on the bill as of right now," Straus said.

Medford police Deputy Chief Tim Doney said department brass hasn't taken a side in the controversy.

"We have heard about the bill but are waiting to see how it shakes out in the Legislature," Doney said. "If they do expand the use, and it does help us solve a major crime, then that could be a good thing. But we certainly understand that some people would see this as Big Brother."

Doney said investigators often use surveillance from private businesses in investigations.

"People don't realize how much they are on camera every day of their lives," Doney said. "Most private businesses have cameras both inside and often outside their buildings."

Detectives often use those images with the permission of the business owner. Such cameras often capture crimes that occur on the street and can get the direction of travel when a suspect flees the scene of a crime.

The red-light camera program is limited to two intersections — Biddle and McAndrews roads, and Barnett Road and Stewart Avenue — and a pair of roving vans that set up on streets where complaints of speeding vehicles have been registered.

Last year, the department issued 2,101 citations via the red-light cameras. Of those, 462 were dismissed because of lack of evidence.

All pictures recorded by the cameras are sent to a third-party vendor and checked for clarity. Pictures of possible offenders are sent back to the department, and citations are mailed out. If the driver's face or the car's license plate is not clearly identified in the photos, the photos are discarded and no citation is issued.

Medford police Chief Tim George said the number of citations drops every year as drivers learn to obey the traffic laws at the intersections fitted with cameras.

"Our overall goal is to correct the behavior of drivers at these places where the intersections and vans work," George said. "We are happy that the citation numbers are coming down."

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471 or email cconrad@mailtribune.com.