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When then-Mayor Richard M. Daley ushered in Chicago’s red-light cameras nearly two decades ago, he said they would help the city curb dangerous driving. “This is all about safety, safety of pedestrians, safety of other drivers, passengers, everyone,” he said.
His successors echoed those sentiments as they expanded camera enforcement. “My goal is only one thing, the safety of our kids,” Rahm Emanuel said in 2011, as he lobbied for the introduction of speed cameras. And in 2020, Lori Lightfoot assured residents her expansion of the program was “about making sure that we keep communities safe.”
But 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.
“We felt the brunt of it the way white people didn’t,” said Olatunji Oboi Reed, a longtime activist for racial equity in transportation in Chicago who has received a handful of camera tickets over the years. “Fortunately, I’ve always been in a situation where I can survive financially, unlike many Black and brown people in the city; one ticket is throwing their whole finances in a hurricane.”
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.
Similar racial and income disparities in camera ticketing have been documented elsewhere. In Rochester, New York, officials eliminated the city’s red-light camera program in 2016 in part because motorists from low-income neighborhoods received the most tickets and the financial harm outweighed any safety benefits. Miami ended its program in 2017 amid complaints from low-income residents who felt unfairly burdened by the fines. And in Washington, D.C., racial justice advocates are researching the city’s camera-ticketing program after a local think tank in 2018 and The Washington Post last year found that cameras in Black neighborhoods issued a disproportionate share of tickets there.
Although some cities have eliminated their camera programs, automated enforcement has been gaining support elsewhere in the aftermath of the nation’s racial reckoning following the death of George Floyd in 2020 at the hands of police. From California to Virginia, citizens groups, safety organizations, elected officials and others are pointing to cameras as a “race-neutral” alternative to potentially biased — and, for many Black men, fatal — police traffic stops.
And more funding for cameras may be coming: The federal infrastructure bill passed last fall allows states to spend federal dollars on traffic cameras in work and school zones.
In Chicago, officials have known of disparities since at least April 2020, when a pair of professors at the University of Illinois Chicago shared initial research showing that cameras send the most tickets to predominantly Black ZIP codes. The city then hired them to study the issue further.
Six months later, Lightfoot — who campaigned in part on ending what she called the city’s “addiction” to fines and fees — proposed that Chicago expand camera ticketing by lowering the speeds at which cameras will issue citations. Lightfoot called it a public safety measure, especially in light of a spike in traffic fatalities during the pandemic, but many observers called it a money grab. The City Council approved the measure as part of the 2021 annual budget.
After the change went into effect last March, racial disparities persisted, ProPublica found.
When asked why the city expanded the program despite knowing of the racial disparities, Dan Lurie, Lightfoot’s policy chief, said the administration saw that traffic fatalities were “at epidemic levels” and that was a “deep concern” to the mayor. “We feel strongly,” he said, “that cameras are a tool in the toolkit to help alleviate that.”
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