Monthly Archives: January 2011

Latest DUI Emphasis Patrol Nets 151 Whatcom County Drivers

The latest “Drive Hammered, Get Nailed” campaign put more officers on patrol during the holiday season and resulted in 151 Whatcom County drivers being arrested on suspicion of drunken driving.

The campaign began Nov. 25 and ended Jan. 2. The Washington State Patrol, the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office and the Bellingham, Ferndale and Western Washington University police departments participated.

Statewide, more than 3,500 people were arrested for DUI during the campaign.

Red Light Cameras Arrive in Spring 2011

Here they come.

Beginning April 1, motorists in Bellingham can expect to see traffic cameras at six locations that have been pinpointed as areas with high instances of speeding in school zones or vehicles running red lights. The first 30 days is an amnesty period where violators will receive warning tickets.

When the City Council voted on the camera ordinance on Nov. 23, Councilman Seth Fleetwood was the lone opposer saying it was a “tough decision.” Ultimately, Fleetwood voted against it saying, “Do we want to live in a place with cameras?”  Fleetwood also disagreed with the City Council’s decision to cancel a public hearing on the subject.  The City Council never rescheduled the meeting.  He called the cancellation “A bad move.”

Based on traffic studies in conjunction with the Bellingham Public Works Department, the Police Department came up with four locations for traffic cameras to detect red-light running: westbound on Holly Street at N. Forest Street; northbound on Ellis Street at Lakeway Drive; northbound on Meridian Street and Telegraph Road; and southbound on Samish Way at 36th Street, near Sehome Village.

Here’s how they work: when a vehicle runs a red light or is detected speeding at one of the intersections, the video equipment is triggered capturing about 12 seconds of footage including the vehicle’s license plate. State law stipulates that the camera may take pictures only from the rear of the vehicle and never the faces of the driver or passengers. Electronic images may not be used for any other purpose and must not be retained longer than necessary to enforce the violation.

The cameras are always in operation but capturing footage only when they are triggered by a vehicle in violation.  Images and video are reviewed by ATS and then a Bellingham Police officer trained on the equipment affirms each violation. If you receive a notice, you can make the payment to ATS or appeal. If you were not the driver of the vehicle, you can contest it in writing.

A ticket generated by the traffic cameras is processed as a “civil infraction” similar to a parking ticket. This is different from a notice of infraction, which occurs when a police officer pulls over a driver accused of running a red light or speeding in a school zone. The notice of infraction is reported to the driver’s auto insurance; the civil infraction is not.

Studies conducted by ATS and other private companies show that camera installation creates safer streets. However, independent studies and those done by news organizations have shown an increase in accidents at intersections where cameras have been installed.

Meantime, at least seven states have banned red-light cameras, including Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, West Virginia and Wisconsin, according to Anne Teigen, a transportation specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

My opinion?  Bad idea.  I’ll tell you a secret: yellow lights are timed MUCH shorter at intersections with traffic cameras.  Quite literally, you must be already driving through the intersection when the light turns yellow.  Otherwise, you’ll be caught, pictured, and ticketed.  These traffic lights are not proven to decrease bad driving behavior.  They are, however, proven to increase revenue for municipalities.  THAT’S what this is about.

Patrol Car Video in Fatal Shooting of Woodcarver Released

 Patrol car video released from an officer’s fatal meeting with John T. Williams does not show the shooting, but includes audio of their interaction. Officer Ian Birk, 27, shot Williams Aug. 30 at Boren Avenue and Howell Street. Williams died at the scene.

Birk yells “Hey!” three times to Williams, then yells three times to “Put the knife down.”

The first shot appears to be fired five seconds from when Birk first told Williams to put the knife down. Court documents show the knife was closed when photographed by investigators.

Less than a minute after the shooting, before backup officers arrive, Birk’s heard telling a woman Williams had a knife and wouldn’t drop it. He tells backup officers Williams had the knife open and was carving.  Williams’ knife had a 3-inch blade — one that is legal under the Seattle Municipal Code. Hundreds of people protested the shooting in September. Critics have said Williams was deaf in one ear and was not presenting a threat to Birk.

A shooting inquest is scheduled for January 20, 2011 (see Inquest blog below).

The Inquest: A Step Toward Justice or Just a Step?

EXCELLENT article from Jennifer Shaw of the ACLU discusses the King County inquest process.  Her recent posting to the ACLU blog discusses the King County inquest process. There is a lot of confusion about inquests:  what are they, who can participate, what findings can the jury make?  This short article addresses some of those questions.

Shaw approaches the subject by discussing how King County District Court will hold an inquest into the August 30, 2010, fatal shooting of First Nations carver John T. Williams by Seattle Police Officer Ian Birk.  She discusses how inquests are just one step in the complicated process that begins when a Seattle police officer fatally shoots someone.  “While each step can add some information to the picture, the process is cumbersome and not necessarily satisfying to the public,” says Shaw.

The first step after a fatal shooting is the criminal investigation.  The next step is to present the case to the Firearms Review Board.  The Board reviews the shooting to determine whether it was “justified.”  A shooting is considered “justified” if the officer followed the department’s policies and training when he used his weapon.  “That doesn’t mean the officer will be found guilty,” says Shaw.  “The board’s decision only means that the officer didn’t follow SPD policies or training.  Period.  It doesn’t declare that the officer committed a crime or would be found civilly liable or could even be fired.”

The next step is the inquest.  An inquest looks a lot like other trials, with a judge, a jury, lawyers, witnesses, court reporter, and observers.  But it is not.  After hearing evidence about “when, where and by what means” the person died, and listening to follow-up questions from both sides, the six-person jury simply answers a series of yes-and-no questions.  The jurors will not hear evidence about the officer’s training or whether he had alternatives to firing his gun. The attorneys cannot argue their opinions of the evidence to the jury.  They cannot ask the jury to find the officer guilty or not guilty. The jury is not permitted to answer whether any person or agency is civilly or criminally liable.

Shaw says the inquest process offers the public an interesting early view of the evidence, but the value of process is limited.  The jury cannot determine whether the officer acted reasonably or whether he had alternatives to using his weapon.  The jury cannot determine whether the department’s policies or the officer’s training was flawed.  Because of these limitations, the inquest process has been frequently criticized by surviving families and advocates, including the ACLU.

After the criminal investigation is complete, the Seattle Police Department’s Office of Professional Accountability will investigate the shooting to determine whether the officer violated department policies and may recommend discipline.  The OPA and the OPA Auditor may also recommend policy and training changes.

“Let’s hope that along the way justice is finally served and that significant changes are put in place so that an incident like this never happens again,” says Shaw.

My opinion?  I agree with Shaw’s concerns.  The inquest process needs significant retooling.  It violates the appearance of fairness to have a prosecutor – who shares a naturally symbiotic relationship with police officers – conduct an inquest.  It’s unfair that an attorney cannot represent the family of the victim at these proceedings.  It’s unfair that the jury cannot determine whether the officer acted reasonably or whether he had alternatives to using his weapon.   It’s unfair that the jury cannot determine whether the department’s policies or the officer’s training was flawed.  Clearly, the scope of the inquest must be broadened.  Otherwise, it will continue to be a mere formality offering the mere appearance of justice.

Mass Incarceration In America