FLORIDA – When a camera catches you blowing through a red light, you get a citation in the mail with a $158 fine.
That is, unless you’re a cop in certain South Florida locales.
While most cities are ticketing cops like other drivers, three in Broward County are fining officers from other agencies — while giving their own a pass. Cops in Hallandale Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Sunrise instead may get a verbal warning or written reprimand if they’re caught on camera running a red light without a legitimate reason.
And one town in Palm Beach County, Juno Beach, doesn’t even bother with red-light violations by police vehicles, whether they’re on official business or not.
Since cameras came to South Florida about two years ago, cities have been wrestling with how to handle violations by cop cars. For the most part, each one is reviewed and ultimately dismissed if the officer was on a call or responding to an emergency.
But the policies vary among the cities and have led to some interesting exchanges.
“Sorry to bother you,” a deputy U.S. marshal wrote to a West Palm Beach police sergeant. “You might be able to help with a little problem that I have.”
The marshal had received a violation in her personal car but said she was on “official business.”
“Is there anything I could do to resolve this issue?” she wrote. “Pleeease help me.”
Cities should avoid the perception that they’re giving police officers special treatment, said former cop Dennis Kenney, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
“We pride ourselves on being a rule-of-law nation,” Kenney said. “And the rule of law requires that the law be enforced equally and evenly regardless of who one is.”
In Hallandale Beach, three city cops caught by cameras running red lights were not fined. Instead, they were given written reprimands.
But Hallandale Beach will ticket officers from other agencies caught by the city’s red-light cameras.
“If it’s one of our officers, we deal with it internally,” Hallandale Police Chief Dwayne Flournoy said. “We may counsel them. We may give them a written [reprimand].”
Flournoy contends that a written reprimand is worse than a fine because it could lead to harsher discipline if the officer continues to run red lights without justification.
“If they could just pay the $158, many of them would rather pay that,” Flournoy said.
But most drivers, if given the chance, would prefer a written reprimand, Kenney said.
“It’s much more preferable than a fine. If the police are exempted, I would assume that somewhere down the line someone will challenge their tickets,” Kenney said. “It would be no different if the department decided to let black people or Jewish people off if they ran the red light. It’s not only wrong but it’s damaging to the social contract the police have with the public.”
Davie had planned to give all cops a pass — until Hollywood fined a Davie cop for running a red light.
“If that’s the trend, we decided to cite officers if they are caught running red lights,” said Davie police Capt. Dale Engle.
The town started fining all red-light runners in September. So far, only one officer in an unmarked unit from South Bay has been ticketed, Engle said.
In West Palm Beach, all manner of official vehicles have blown through red lights in the two years since the city started ticketing violators.
Sgt. Matthew Bessette decides whether they had a valid reason or should be fined.
The explanations he receives run the gamut:
“The reason that I violated the law was because I was responding to a shooting,” wrote a West Palm Beach police lieutenant.
A Palm Beach County sheriff’s deputy said he was trying to catch a car with an unrestrained infant in the back seat when he ran a red light.
“Traffic was to [sic] busy,” he wrote. “I really thought I made it before the light changed, but once again I am very sorry, and it will not happen again.”
Another deputy wrote that he had been testifying in court when he noticed a package left behind and tried to catch up to the owner once he left the courthouse.
“I was concentrating on not losing sight of the vehicle and it appeared the green light was still in my favor,” the deputy wrote, adding that he eventually did reach the car and returned the package.
Federal and state courthouses make downtown West Palm Beach a hub of activity, Bessette said.
“We have agencies from all over the tri-county area,” he said. “They do flow in and out.”
He said the city has issued tickets to its own officers, including one caught on camera in her patrol car in July.
Records did not indicate the officer was responding to any calls, and she “offered no valid reason for running the red light,” an internal police memo says. The officer paid the $158 fine.
Hollywood tickets officers — including its own — who run red lights when not on a police call.
“Here it doesn’t matter if you’re a Hollywood cop or not. You’re getting the citation if you’re not on a call,” said Hollywood spokesman Jaime Hernandez.
Cops from outside agencies who want to challenge the citation need a letter from a supervisor stating they were on official police business when they ran the red light, Hernandez said.
But like many cities, Hollywood does not keep track of the number of officers running red lights.
Margate also tickets its own cops as well as officers from other jurisdictions. So far, Margate has ticketed one cop from Fort Lauderdale, one from Lauderhill and one Broward Sheriff’s Office deputy.
Sunrise and Fort Lauderdale will write up officers from other agencies.
“We treat them the same as Joe Public,” Fort Lauderdale Detective Travis Mandell said. “They get a notice of violation.”
But like Hallandale Beach, both agencies handle it internally if it’s one of their own.
Not so in Pembroke Pines. Since July 2010, traffic cameras have caught 14 city cops running red lights when they weren’t on a call. All received fines.
“We cite every officer, no matter which department,” said Clementine Katrina Fox, an official with the Pembroke Pines Police Department.
In West Park, all police cruisers are treated the same.
“Unless they are in the lawful performance of their duties, violations will be issued,” said Keyla Concepcion, spokeswoman for the Broward Sheriff’s Office, the agency that polices West Park and 13 other municipalities in Broward.
In Coral Springs, 128 police and fire vehicles from several agencies have been caught by the city’s red-light cameras since Aug. 15. All but five were dismissed because their emergency lights were on when they went through the light.
Five vehicles did not have their lights on, but were among 500 red-light runners who didn’t get ticketed because of flaws in the program that have since been corrected.
Coral Springs cops caught running a light when not on a call will be issued a violation and required to pay.
So far, none have been fined, Lt. Joe McHugh said.
Most officers running red lights are doing so because they’re on a call, McHugh said.
“I would be astonished to see my guys put on their lights just to get through a light,” McHugh said. “It’s a bad stereotype that officers turn on their lights just to get through a light.”
In Palm Beach County, two cities with red-light cameras, Boynton Beach and West Palm Beach, ticket emergency vehicles if they don’t have a legitimate reason for running the red light.
“If it comes in to us and we see that it is a police or fire vehicle from another city, they will automatically get the notice of violation,” said Stephanie Slater, spokeswoman for Boynton Beach police. “If they call us, we tell them, ‘Send us on official letterhead the purpose.'”
If they’re on official business, no fine is issued. Slater said the city doesn’t keep statistics on the number of violations issued to police or fire departments.
In Juno Beach, emergency vehicles get a pass, the police chief said. And Boca Raton just began issuing red light fines this month and was still determining how to handle emergency vehicles, a spokesman said.
The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office makes its deputies pay their own tickets if they’re caught running a red light without a legitimate reason, said spokeswoman Teri Barbera.
“Our agency would hold our employee personally responsible to handle the violation like any ordinary citizen would,” she said.
Gladys Wilson, a Cooper City resident, doesn’t think it’s fair that some officers might be getting special treatment.
“If they are indeed on an emergency call, then give them a pass,” she said. “But if they are speeding and they don’t have their lights on, they should be ticketed just like Gladys Wilson and every other resident. These officers seem to feel like they are better than or should not be ticketed. That’s wrong. They need to learn the traffic rules and abide by them.”