Police Lt. Paul Story was standing at a busy intersection in Alexandria last week when a motorist blew through a red light right in front of him. The officer took off running in his knee-high black boots, only to watch with dismay as the vehicle turned a corner and sped away.
"Twenty years ago, I would've caught him," Story, 55, shouted over the din of traffic.
Not too long ago, a camera might have.
At midnight Thursday, the last of 38 cameras in six Northern Virginia jurisdictions were switched off, ending a 10-year experiment that allowed them to photograph what amounted to hundreds of thousands of vehicles running red lights. Such cameras are still used in the District and Maryland.
The unceremonious end to the program in Virginia came four months after the General Assembly voted not to renew it, despite repeated efforts by local legislators, police and elected officials to keep the cameras rolling. Others, like Mark Stollenwerk, held up gleeful handmade signs at a Fairfax County intersection Thursday night to celebrate the end of what many have said they believe was a violation of their civil liberties.
"What's next, a chip in our cars that tracks everything that we do wrong?" asked Stollenwerk, leader of the Fairfax County Privacy Council, as he stood alongside other camera opponents waving signs that read, "Bye Bye Red Light Cameras."
Despite the varied reactions, one thing was certain as the program ended: The fight over the cameras is not over.
They may be out, but they're not down -- at least not in Fairfax County, Arlington County and Falls Church, where police plan to keep their cameras mounted on their perches to collect data.
"We're going to keep the cameras in place," said police Lt. Daniel Townsend, assistant commander of the traffic division in Fairfax, which used cameras at 15 intersections. "We won't be snapping photos, but we're going to continue to monitor . . . whether we get a spike in red-light violations and crashes."
Falls Church has installed sensors beneath its roads that will delay a light change in the opposite direction if it senses that a driver is going to run a red light. Three municipalities -- Alexandria, Fairfax City and Vienna -- had not decided by last week whether to take their cameras down.
"We want to salvage as much as we can from the situation," said David Snyder, a council member in Falls Church, which had cameras at five intersections. The cameras "are a right that we ought to have in our own city because of the very unique and very near anarchy we have on the roads in Northern Virginia."
The cameras, which automatically photograph vehicles when they run red lights, were authorized as an experiment in 1995 by the Virginia legislature, though they were installed at various times.
But the program failed to gain renewal in part because many rural legislators said they believed the surveillance cameras infringed on personal liberties and were akin to Big Brother. Several area residents expressed that sentiment Thursday, when they stood at Loisdale Road and the Fairfax County Parkway holding their signs, including one that said, "Honk if you hate Red-light Cameras."
For an hour that night, the roadway echoed with the sounds of beeps and honks.
Authorities said it will be far more difficult to catch -- and cite -- red-light violators now that the cameras are off. The cameras established 24-hour enforcement at some of the region's most dangerous intersections, and officers said they will be far less efficient without them.
"We'll never be able to effectively cover an intersection like the cameras did," said Sgt. Jamie Bartlett, commander of the Alexandria police traffic division.
Those Northern Virginia jurisdictions that used cameras were unanimous in wanting to continue snapping photos of red-light violations, which carried a $50 fine. Slightly more than three-fourths of those who received the photos and citation paid the fine, a recent state study found.
But police officials said it wasn't about the money. In fact, three of the six governments that implemented the camera program -- Alexandria, Fairfax County and Vienna -- lost tens of thousands of dollars annually because they did not collect enough revenue to cover the cost of the equipment. Arlington, Fairfax City and Falls Church posted tiny profits.
In Arlington, more than 99,000 citations were mailed to red-light violators from January 2000 through May of this year, said Capt. Bonnie Regan, commander of the special operations section. She said the number was far more than could ever have been written by the department's officers.
"We're going to miss the cameras," she said. "They were specifically placed in areas that were difficult to enforce and where we saw the most accidents."