In December of 2006, we heard about how the Harris County Toll Road Authority was using cameras stationed at toll lanes to identify and nab serial toll-skippers. The Chron story at the time also said that "the technology [is] useful for other purposes as well, including tracking stolen vehicles". If, like me, you wondered what those "other purposes" might be, now we know.
"We're going to be catching a lot of bad guys," said Assistant Chief Deputy Randy Johnson, of the Precinct 5 Constable's Office, who also serves as the incident management administrator for the toll road authority.
Eleven cameras already are in place and another 24 will be installed by the end of the month. The toll road authority plans to install cameras throughout the toll system by the end of the year. Five similar cameras are mounted on deputy constables' patrol cars, Johnson said.
The system, which has been operating for about a month, has proved so promising that the Houston Police Department wants a piece of the action. Harris County leaders next week will consider an agreement that would include the HPD in the county system at no cost.
"This is a good law enforcement tool," HPD spokesman John Cannon said. "It's a technology we would be foolish to ignore."
The license plate recognition cameras are perched on toll booth canopies. As a car passes, the cameras focus on its plates. That information is then checked against a database of chronic toll road violators, as well as more serious criminals. License plates of automobiles involved in child abductions or other missing persons' cases also are on record.
If the system detects a match, a county dispatcher will be alerted and notify the nearest law enforcement officer.
"If that car is flagged, if it goes through a particular toll or EZ Tag lane, it would immediately be brought to the attention of county employees and constables who patrol the tollways," Cannon said. "That gives us a better lead than if we did not have that type of technology."
In case you were curious:
Red-light cameras installed at 50 Houston intersections will not be used in the same way as the tollway authority's cameras, Cannon said.
"Red-light cameras are strictly used for traffic enforcement," the HPD spokesman said. "That's not what they were designed to do."