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This article is part of ACCIDENT — a column by Jessie Singer about blame and accountability in America. Subscribe.

I Got Arrested To Prevent an Accident

My search for the real reason why people hate speed cameras

The woman who handcuffed me asked if I was cold.

It was June. We stood in the sun in the middle of the street. For an early morning, it was sweltering.

She held me by the cuffs — thick, plastic, human-size zip-ties. I looked over my shoulder at her, at the news cameras, at the street of cars in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn that we had managed to still.

Are you cold? she asked. You’re shaking.

I laughed a bit too loud. I had heard this one before. Perhaps they taught gas-lighting in the police academy—Question Their Well-Being 101.

It was not the first time I had been arrested for standing in the middle of the street and refusing to move. I was a protester. This was a thing that I did. It was no accident — but I hoped that getting arrested might prevent one.

In New York City, 38,000 police officers patrol just 300 square miles of soil and asphalt, so arrests are a common sight — around 240,000 each year. The New York Police Department arrested 27,000 people in 2016 alone just for not having subway fare. That’s around three people arrested every hour for a whole year, a disproportionate number of whom are people of color.

These arrests are legitimate in the eyes of the law. Being short a $2.75 MetroCard is an arrestable offense (theft of services: fare evasion) though New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has said that he prefers summonsing over arrests for these minor thefts. Standing in the middle of the street is also an arrestable offense (disorderly conduct: obstruction of vehicular traffic). But what prompted me to block traffic in June would not get a person cuffed even under the most extreme circumstance.

My protest was about a tiny maligned machine called a speed camera.

A speed camera is a metal box containing a radar that measures speed and a camera, triggered by the radar, capable of photographing license plates. Speed cameras are an arrest replacement, enforcement automated by technology, and like most other robots, they are wildly more effective than their human counterparts.

Since 2014, the New York Police Department caught 520,000 speeding drivers. Speed cameras caught 4.6 million.

All 4.6 million of those times that a driver was caught speeding can be sourced back to just 140 speed cameras permitted to be in operation by the New York State legislature. They were permitted to operate only near schools, and only during school hours. With over 2,000 schools inside city limits, the 140 cameras covered a fraction of the need. Still, they outpaced human effectiveness by an order of magnitude.

A week before I was arrested in June, it was decided that every speed camera in New York City would be switched off.

Why did I care? In 2006, a driver — drunk and speeding — killed my best friend. A bus driver killed Seth Kahn in 2009. His mother Debbie stood to my right in the street that day. In 2014, a taxi driver killed Cooper Stock. His mother Dana was arrested on my left. Jane Martin-Lavaud held the end of our line. The driver who killed her daughter Leonora floored it to 70 mph on a residential street before he crashed. Traffic accidents, all of them, the police told the newspaper reporters. In the street in June, we held each other’s hands until the cops pried us apart.

I wore a sign around my neck, a time-honored tactic of people intending to be arrested. At the door of the police van, an officer lifted the sign over my head and carried it inside, where she collected all the others. While we drove to the 68th Precinct, I watched the officer, sitting in the corner by the van door, flip through the signs. She looked at our faces, mine and the mothers with whom I was arrested, trying to puzzle back which sign she had taken from whom.

Speed Cameras save lives.

Seth Kahn, my 22-year-old son, killed by a reckless driver.

Leonora Lavaud, my 24-year old daughter, killed by a speeding driver.

Cooper Stock, my 9-year-old son, killed by a reckless driver.

Children are going to die. We are here to stop it.

I shifted on the metal bench, feeling for a nice way to sit in handcuffs, an impossible hope.

Speed cameras tend to pick up bad words like a lollipop in dryer lint: money-grab, scam, racket, speed trap, revenue-machine. After New York City switched its cameras on for the first time, the editorials piled up.

Speed cameras cannot do the job of a live, professionally trained police officer, the president of the police officers’ union huffed in a statement. But they are very good at one thing: stuffing the City’s coffers with additional revenue from fines.

In Washington, D.C. a man destroyed a speed camera by hand. In Maryland, another set one on fire. In YouTube comments below the surveillance footage, the word hero appears again and again.

In a recent interview, I asked a New York City beat cop why he thought people hated speed cameras. They are effective, he said. Everyone agrees you should be able to break the law a little.

In a world with speed cameras, there are no accidents. You cannot flirt with a speed camera, or flash your Friend of the Police card when you reach for your registration. Speed cameras are not debatable. Speed cameras keep a record. Speed cameras work.

For a year, I’ve had Google News ping me every time a person tells a reporter: It was an accident. By and large I have found that it is a phrase used by an operator who failed to control a machine— a person who shoots another with a gun, a person who hits another with a car. It was an accident is an after-the-fact phrase.

But speed cameras are a before-the-fact machine. You can’t tell a speed camera that it was an accident, a speed camera tells you that it was not.

Outside the single cell at the back of Brooklyn’s 68th Precinct, a police officer cut my plasti-cuffs and walked me inside. A white woman lay on the only bench. She woke up at our arrival, looking bleary-eyed at me and the three mothers who followed. We five white ladies were a certain anomaly, filling a police cell in a city and a country that arrests black people at a rate five times that of whites.

In time, we chatted with the woman who preceded us. She looked my age, and unslept, in jeans and t-shirt. Something tugging behind the deep-set of her eyes reminded me of being 19 and fighting to stay awake in a lecture hall after a late night.

I lost track of the conversation reading the writing on the cell walls — curse words and nicknames scratched into the paint. Then, one of the mothers asked the woman: What are you in for?

DUI, she said. Drunk driving.

We all turned to look.

It was a small cell, the smallest I had ever been in, maybe half the size of a one-car garage. The quiet fell thick. High walls exaggerated the minor footprint of the space and how close we stood inside it. It was clear the woman did not know she had said anything wrong.

Then, one of the mothers said to the woman: We are here because someone like you killed our children.

Outside the cell, a police officer told us to stop the conversation or he would have to come inside.

All 140 of New York City’s speed cameras were switched off after the end of a legislative session where one senator held a bill that would have renewed the program in committee until the clock ran out. From 4.6 million drivers caught speeding in the past four years, the uptick puttered down to zero in a day.

Protests like ours rose in every corner of the city. Angry officials took over a science classroom to yell for the news cameras. Outside the governor’s office, protesters shut down a street in Midtown Manhattan during rush hour. One mother who lost a son held a vigil, awake for 24 hours.

And the protest worked. Last week, under unrelenting pressure, the governor and the speaker of the City Council figured out a way to bypass the renewal bill that the Senate had failed to bring up for a vote. The cameras were switched back on in time for the first day of school.

That day in June, I was allowed to leave our cell in the 68th Precinct a few hours after I entered, two pink slips in hand for a future court date — one for blocking traffic, one for ignoring the police officers who told me to move. A few weeks later, a judge would adjourn my charges pending six months of good behavior.

When I was led out of the cell, the drunk driver sat there still, waiting to see a judge. I had been granted the courtesy of summonses and permission to promise to return to court at a later date, but as a driver, she was granted other privileges. In a few hours, after she plead guilty to her crime, a police officer would hand back to her the keys to her car, and she would be allowed to drive home. She would drive on city streets where every speed camera — those accident-denial machines — was still, rather intentionally, switched off.


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