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ADOT defends why freeway cameras go dark during critical moments

ADOT manages the freeways, driver's licenses, and vehicle registrations.
ADOT manages the freeways, driver's licenses, and vehicle registrations.(Arizona's Family)
Published: Feb. 21, 2022 at 8:32 PM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -- Traffic cameras across Arizona watch you each day on your commute, capturing accidents and backups on state freeways. The department in charge of the cameras might be the most powerful agency in the state.

ADOT manages the freeways, driver’s licenses, and vehicle registrations. It also decides whether you see those camera feeds or they go black. Arizona’s Family looked through two years of records to determine why those 450 cameras keep going dark during critical moments on state highways.

“It’s basically common sense,” said ADOT spokesperson Doug Nick. “We do not want to show things that might be disturbing or violent on this system, simply because there are thousands of people, some of who may be children or people who simply should not want to see that.”

Arizona's Family looked through two years of records to determine why those 450 cameras keep going dark during critical moments on state highways.

On May 25, 2020, 28-year-old Dion Johnson was shot and killed along Loop 101 during a confrontation with a state trooper. There’s no bodycam video of the shooting, but Arizona’s Family was the only television station to record a traffic feed from ADOT showing the aftermath.

About two months later, ADOT created a traffic camera feed procedure. Arizona’s Family asked Nick if the Johnson incident changed how DPS and ADOT look at cutting feeds. “No,” said Nick.

However, there was no written traffic camera feed procedure before that shooting. “We codified that procedure because it was basically like common sense procedure before that, that had not been written down,” said Nick. “...which is common practice at this agency, that when you see a procedure that may have been done rather informally, let’s make it standard work.”

Many people don’t think it’s common sense, including those with The Black Lives Matter movement. “They don’t want transparency because they don’t want accountability,” said Mimi Arrayaa, Co-Director at BLM PHX Metro.

She believes it’s no coincidence at all that a state policy was created so quickly after the Johnson shooting. “They got a lot of heat for that video, and they switched up their tactics,” said Arrayaa.

ADOT controls each of the cameras from its Traffic Operations Center, and they can move the cameras, zoom in, and even shut off those feeds.

Nick said the purpose of the cameras is to show the public what’s happening on Arizona freeways in real-time. ADOT controls each of the cameras from its Traffic Operations Center, and they can move the cameras, zoom in, and even shut off those feeds. Also inside the TOC is a DPS trooper.

“The DPS troopers are there simply to keep an eye on what’s going on, on the freeways, so if they need to deploy some resources for law enforcement, they can do that,” said Nick.

Troopers have been stationed inside the TOC since 2014. They can ask to turn off the feed, but ADOT said it makes the final call. Anyone, including our TV station, can pull up live traffic feeds around Arizona and record the images.

When ADOT cuts the feed, news stations and the public are literally in the dark, unable to see what’s going on and unable to record the images for later, but those inside the TOC, including that DPS trooper, still can.

According to the procedure put into writing in July 2020, ADOT can cut video feeds when law enforcement controls the camera position for reasons other than traffic conditions. It also says feeds can be cut when ADOT tracks law enforcement activities where live images could hamper operations or officer safety.

Since ADOT created the procedure, camera feeds have been cut hundreds of times, from freeway pursuits to crashes and high-risk stops. When ADOT pulls the plug, it’s not just one camera but on the entire system. Hundreds of feeds go black all across the state.

Arizona’s Family asked Nick if he finds it troubling the feeds were cut at least 87 times in 2020 and more than 500 times in 2021. “No, because, again, 99.3% of the time, those cameras are on,” said Nick.

Arizona’s Family asked ADOT for records dating back to 2019, showing when feeds were cut. The logs ADOT sent to us only start documenting cuts in May 2020.

Arizona’s neighboring states like New Mexico, Nevada, and Colorado have their traffic cameras, and each state operates its feeds a little differently.

“There really is very few reasons we would cut the feed, only if it’s just not appropriate for the public to see,” said Marisa Maez, Communication Director for The New Mexico Department of Transportation.

“It is rare that the cameras are suppressed,” said Meg Ragonese, Spokesperson for The Nevada Department of Transportation. “It does sometimes happen that cameras are momentarily suppressed if necessary for public privacy and public safety.”

Arizona’s Family asked Nick why our state is cutting feeds more often than other states. “I can’t speak for other states,” said Nick. “We’re looking at one of the largest metropolitan areas here in the country, a rapidly growing population, a rapidly growing freeway system, a rapidly growing number of cameras to go with that.”

Nick said ADOT cuts feed to protect the public from seeing disturbing and violent scenes. Attorney Benjamin Taylor believes the community deserves to see critical moments happening on our freeways.

“Why are they being turned off when this is evidence to show whether that person did right or wrong, and this helps a judge and jury make critical decisions in the court of law,” said Taylor.

According to ADOT’s records, they turned off the feed several times in 2020, so DPS could use freeway cameras to monitor protesters.

In July of 2020, logs reveal DPS and an ADOT supervisor were monitoring demonstrators very closely on the Mill Avenue bridge in Tempe, zooming in on people even though there isn’t a direct path to Loop 202.

“I think it is deeply troubling given the history of this country of inappropriate and unnecessary police surveillance of peaceful civil rights protesters that this would be continuing now, " said KM Bell, Smart Justice Campaign Strategist at ACLU of Arizona.

“The intention of these cameras are to look at traffic accidents and freeway accidents,” said Taylor. “However, it looks like law enforcement uses these cameras to spy and try to control what protesters were doing.”

“If somebody is going to get on a freeway or something like that, or there’s going to be an issue of violence, potential violence, again, regardless of the genesis of the protest, we are simply not going to take the opportunity to see that or show that to the general public,” said Nick.

Logs show ADOT officers cut feeds 15 times in just the first four days of this year. The reasons vary. Logs show feeds have been cut in the past because of wrong-way drivers, high-risk traffic stops, vehicle fires, or even pedestrians walking on the freeway.

When the cameras go dark, there’s no way to record and no way to go back and review what happened. Nick said there are no current plans to change the procedure.

“The assumption that DPS is doing something wrong in those situations when, in fact, while the biggest concern may be what is somebody else doing?” said Nick. “If this is a high-risk stop, we don’t want to show any violence no matter who perpetrates it.”