April 06, 2008
Toll road cameras expand in scope

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."

As I said back in '06, I don't necessarily have a problem with using this kind of technology in place of traffic cops to enforce the law. But I do have the same concerns about who will have access to this data, what security and storage policies are in place for it, and of course what else will they use this technology for? This particular use is easily justifiable, but it's not without risk. I guarantee that at some point, a person who is driving the car of a friend or family member who's in one of those databases will get pulled over and have a very unpleasant experience, with a nonzero possibility of something going catastrophically and tragically wrong. Are we prepared for that? There's certainly benefit in this plan to watch for the cars of known criminals, but there's downside as well.

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."

Good to know. I'm kind of curious as to what the persistent red light camera critics think of this program HCTRA is implementing, but so far I haven't seen any reaction from any of them.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on April 06, 2008 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

I think that HPD are going from call for service to call for service in an unending queue as it is. Since law enforcement makes up a huge part of our budget and we are having trouble getting new folks to sign up, I don't see a huge influx of new boots on the ground anytime soon.

I'd rather see budget dollars spent in increasing proactive work within apartment complexes and the like (which means overtime pay), myself, rather than gadgets that have a pretty big chance of being a budget spiral as the project seeks to justify itself with an endless supply of taxpayer generated excel sheets and powerpoint presentations.

Be happier if the cameras were used to generate revenue so that we could afford more personnel.

I find myself suspending my liberal views on civil liberties on the issue really, for better or worse. We simply need more cops, hard to get around that. The murder rates in some of the worst apartments in the area are hellish.

Posted by: Michael on April 6, 2008 10:10 AM

insufficient until it records ALL plates to protect the innocent and I can track my own car through the internet

Posted by: Charles Hixon on April 6, 2008 4:46 PM

I would rather see cameras put up in my neighborhood to deter the drug dealing an illegal dumping that is going on. You already know they are planning other uses for those cameras because there are only so many toll violators. They have already added HPD warrants to the picture.

Posted by: Rufus Brown on April 10, 2008 3:19 AM