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More on the Metro security robot

Looks like this is finally getting rolled out.

Typically, when a security guard weighs 400 pounds, it means they are not well suited for foot patrols. K5, however, was built for it.

Soon the spaceship-shaped sentries will roll into action at transit stops and continue keeping watch on a parking garage at Bush Intercontinental Airport, under tests to see if more mechanized monitoring can help people navigate places and provide a bit more security in spaces that could use an extra set of eyes.

Airport officials deployed two K5s, built by Silicon Valley-based Knightscope, in early December. In the coming weeks, once they are properly branded with logos, Metropolitan Transit Authority said it will roll out K5s at a park and ride lot and a transit center in the area. A stationary K1, also built by Knightscope, will be installed at a rail platform. Metro’s board approved a $270,000 contract with Knightscope about 11 months ago.

Robots likely will hit the beat in a few weeks, transit agency spokeswoman Tracy Jackson said. Officials have not confirmed the locations where the units will be deployed.

The intent at Bush, airport parking director Walt Gray said, is to see if the robots prove helpful addressing minor issues that come up in the garage, such as someone who cannot find their car or a traveler who returns with a trip to find a flat tire. A button on the robot can be pressed to speak directly with someone, with the robot able to pinpoint the exact location.

Gray said the robots are supplemental tools to on-site security, though airport officials could have bigger plans to let K5 loose in the terminals to help travelers with directions.

See here for the background. That contract was approved about a month before COVID shut everything down, so I presume that that is the reason why it took so long to get from contract approval to actual pilot test. I don’t have anything to add to what I said back then, I just look forward to the day when I can find myself on a rail platform and encounter one of these things.

Metro’s robot security guards

Not a character from a dystopian action movie, I promise.

Robot security guards are coming to a Houston-area transit center, park and ride lot and rail station in the coming months, after the Metropolitan Transit Authority board approved a $270,000 test of the techno-police Thursday.

“They have been shown to be deterrents,” said Denise Wendler, chief information officer for Metro.

Wendler said Metro’s agreement with Knightscope is a one-year test, from which it could expand beyond the three locations. Citing the need to provide more security to petty crimes without stretching police resources, officials sought information on the robotic rangers.

Agency officials, in consultation with the company, will decide which parking lots, transit centers and rail stops get a robot in the first year, Wendler said.

Security sentinels are becoming a familiar sight in shopping malls and some developments. In downtown Houston, a robot patrols the grounds of Allen Center.

Though many users nationally have said they are a cost-effective crime deterrent, the devices have raised alarms with some privacy concerns about a robot roaming public spaces recording everything and broadcasting back to private and public entities. Fears of hacking also have been raised.

Metro officials are likely to use a K5 robot — a 400-pound, 5’2” bullet-shaped bot that moves at a maximum speed of 3 mph — at a transit center and park and ride lot. Though a sleek R2-D2 does not sound that intimidating, its ability to record video and relay it to police is its real threat to thieves and others.

“What they have seen is people move away from it because they do not want to be videoed,” Wendler said.

If you’re thinking you might have seen one of these things before, you may have. I don’t feel like digging through my archives for this, but there was a big discussion in Houston a bit more than a decade ago about the usefulness of installing a bunch of closed-circuit cameras downtown as a crime deterrent. That was eventually scrapped, partly for cost reasons, partly for privacy reasons, partly for a general lack of evidence that the cameras did serve as deterrents. It’s possible that data is different now – for sure, camera and surveillance technology is a lot more advanced, for better and worse – but even then the one good use case for the closed circuit cameras was in enclosed spaces – parking lots, subway trains, that sort of thing – and that’s more or less what is being proposed here. So we’ll see how they work. I do hope Metro is forthcoming with data about the experience, and I hope they will admit it and move on if they don’t have much effect.

Abbott’s border surge plan

A whole lot of not much here.

Still not Greg Abbott

Attorney General Greg Abbott, the Republican candidate for governor, said Tuesday he wants to nearly double state spending to improve security along the U.S.-Mexico border, proposing a “continuous surge” with 1,000 new boots on the ground and millions of dollars worth of high-tech equipment.

The proposal, dubbed his “Securing Texans Plan” and unveiled Tuesday in Dallas, would also include tougher laws against sex crimes, gang activity and domestic violence.

At a cost of more than $300 million over two years, the proposal represents the largest government expansion he’s proposed as a candidate for governor. The border security package would entail the hiring of 500 new Department of Public Safety officers over four years — plus additional overtime and support staff — to help create what he called a “permanent border shield.”

“We must do more to protect our border going beyond sporadic surges,” Abbott said. “As governor I will almost double the spending for DPS border security. I’ll add more boots on the ground, more assets in the air and on the water, and deploy more technology and tools for added surveillance.”

Abbott would not specify any existing sources of funding to pay for the new programs. He said only that it would come from existing general revenue dollars.

“These are going to be budgetary priorities that must be paid first,” Abbott told reporters after his speech. He said seized dollars and asset forfeiture programs eventually would help pay for the border security portion, which exceeds $292 million over two years, but he wouldn’t say how to pay for it before that money kicked in.

Asked if there were any programs that would have to be cut to pay for the dramatic spending increase, Abbott said, “I couldn’t identify them.”

“It would be whatever legislators may come up with they want to have funded. That is left to the ideas that will be articulated by the 150 state reps and 31 senators,” he said.

Abbott said he would not rely on “any new form of revenue,” including taxes or fees, to pay for the proposals.

“To be perfectly clear right now and forever: absolutely no tax increases whatsoever for any of my programs,” he said. “The Abbott administration will not have any tax increases.”

The first thing you need to realize is that there’s absolutely nothing new here. Remember Operation Border Star? Or Rick Perry’s border cameras? Or how about the fact that President Clinton sent the Marines to patrol the border in the 90s, as a commenter at BurkaBlog pointed out. That ended after 17-year-old Ezequiel Hernandez, Jr was shot and killed. I wonder if anyone in the media will remember any of this and ask Greg Abbott about it.

Beyond the un-originality of the idea is the unlikelihood of it doing anything. The Texas-Mexico border is really long; adding 500 agents means one more agent every two miles or so. The refusal to say how he’d pay for this little scheme is typical Abbott hand-waving. Does anyone really think these 500 new agents could collect $300 million in asset forfeiture funds per biennium, more than what the entire border patrol collects now, without the entire operation turning into Tenaha? It’s a scandal waiting to happen.

There is a way forward here, and that is for Greg Abbott to call on his Republican colleagues in Congress to quit screwing around and support comprehensive immigration reform. You know, like the plan that the Senate passed but the House refuses to vote on, with the explicit blessing of Abbott’s former employee Ted Cruz. The Senate plan is hardly the end of the rainbow, but it’s a big step forward. If Abbott wants to push for a better plan than the Senate’s, one that fetishizes the shibboleth of border security less and seeks a realistic and compassionate way to let more of the many people who really want to come to the US but are being kept out by our broken and byzantine process, then more power to him. I expect to be appointed to the board of the Koch Brothers’ evil empire before that happens.

Abbott isn’t actually interested in solving the problem, though. He’s just throwing red meat to his base, despite having the primary in the bag. As much as the locals didn’t care for his “Third World country” rhetoric, I doubt he even noticed, or cared if he did. He knows who he’s talking to. It’s what he does.

One more thing:

Abbott also proposed introducing the so-called E-Verify system, used to determine whether a particular employee has legal status, in state government.

Even though he said the system was “99.5 percent” effective, Abbott said he would not apply that new enforcement program to the private sector, where the vast majority of undocumented immigrants work.

The big-business lobby, representing many companies that have for years relied on cheap immigrant labor, has long resisted increased worksite enforcement in Texas and elsewhere.

“I think that Texas should establish the leadership position by employing this first as a state body, show that it works, set the standard for what it should be, before the state goes about the process of imposing more mandates on private employers,” Abbott said.

I’m just curious here, but how many undocumented immigrants does Abbott think are currently working undetected in state government? If this is a problem, why wasn’t he calling for E-Verify to be implemented before now? Surely Rick Perry and the Legislature wouldn’t have opposed the idea. And suggesting that maybe private businesses might consider voluntarily adopting it if he sets a good example for them is just too precious for words. If the system is so damn effective – not an incontrovertible claim, of course – and if undocumented immigrants are such a huge problem, why wouldn’t you push to make it a requirement? Burka is right, we don’t have policy in this state, we just have ideology. And it’s just insane.

Police cameras

It’s disappointing that Houston lags behind other cities in using dashboard cameras in police cars, but I am glad to see we are trying to catch up.

Houston police have fewer dashboard cameras than any major Texas law enforcement agency, providing them with little of the recorded evidence that other departments have to determine whether an officer violated procedures or laws.

Just 5 percent of the Houston Police Department’s fleet of nearly 4,000 vehicles feature dashboard cameras, compared to the Dallas Police Department’s 55 percent, the highest of the six largest law enforcement agencies in the state.

A recent Houston Chronicle investigation showed more than one-fourth of civilians shot by HPD from 2008 to 2012 were unarmed, and apparently none of the 121 shootings in that time frame were captured by dash cameras.

HPD Chief Charles McClelland this month announced a program to test 100 small cameras worn on the front of officers’ uniforms, saying this newer technology has made dash cameras obsolete. He did not address the future of HPD’s dashboard cameras.

Policing experts say cameras – mounted in cars or uniforms – are critical to public confidence in law enforcement.

“They are absolutely a benefit. They tell a story,” said professor Geoffrey Alpert, who teaches criminology at the University of South Carolina and is a national expert on policing. “If you have a suspect saying one thing, and the officer another thing, and if you don’t have an electronic witness, you don’t know who’s telling the truth.”

Alpert said research has found that dash cameras support the officer’s account 90 percent of the time, although he notes they are expensive for cities to purchase and operate.

Austin police have installed digital cameras in 38 percent of the department’s 1,335 vehicles. Other agencies with more dash cameras than HPD include Fort Worth, El Paso, the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Harris County Sheriff’s Office. The Dallas Police Department, the state’s second largest police agency with 3,500 officers, has installed dashboard camera systems in 960 of its 1,757 vehicles, according to an open records request.

There’s really no good argument against having these cameras. They cost money, sure, but they’re a great investment because they provide an indisputably objective account of what happened when police interact with civilians. The case for dashboard cams is the same as the case for recording interrogations, though for reasons I’ve never quite understood there’s more resistance to the latter. I am curious about the proposed use of officer cams instead of dashboard cams, mostly because the officer cams – uniform cams? – are new and don’t have a record of use that we can examine like the dashboard cams do. I can see how the officer cams might provide a better view than static dashboard cams, but I can also imagine a scenario where an officer that might want to obscure what he’s doing could facilitate that by the way he positions himself or angles his body. It’s important to make sure the cams can’t be interfered with.

It’s also important to make sure the operation of the cams is not optional or at the discretion of the officers involved.

Fort Worth police have equipped about one-quarter of their 1,227 vehicles with dashboard cameras. Police union officials there say the biggest problem is officers who forget to turn the cameras on.

“Here’s the deal. If it saves you on one multimillion dollar lawsuit, it would be worth it,” said Sgt. Stephen Hall, president of the Fort Worth Police Officers Association.

McClelland, the HPD chief, said the 100 body cameras to be used in a pilot program – including hardware, software and digital storage – costs $2,500 each.

Equipping all 3,000 HPD officers who are first responders would be a significant investment, McClelland said. Using the figures provided by the chief, the cost would be about $7.5 million.

He said anecdotal reports from other departments indicate body cameras have resulted in fewer complaints against officers, along with more convictions in criminal courts.

McClelland said the new technology will also offer “a measure of protection for our police officers against false allegations” and defense in civil litigation.

“This just allows us to have our own video, without being edited by the public or someone’s cellphone video they want to chop up and only show bits of pieces, only the bad parts that they think where maybe it makes the officer look bad and makes them look good,” McClelland said.

Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Officers’ Union, said the cameras must be turned on and off by the officer, who in many situations will instead focus on making an arrest.

“We’re not scared of what the cameras are going to capture, we are fearful that an officer is going to fail to turn it on at a very quickly evolving scene and people are automatically going to think that officer is trying to hide something,” Hunt said.

Which is why it shouldn’t be up to the officers to remember to turn them on. They should either be always on or automatically activated whenever an officer exits the police vehicle. People will have confidence in them only if they know they will always be able to review the video. The first time video isn’t available when there’s been a confrontation between an officer and a civilian, people will have questions. The second time it happens, people will have doubts. If we want this to work and get the maximum benefit from these cameras, they have to be always on when we need them. If they’re not designed that way, they’re not ready to be used. Grits, who is a fan of the officer cams, has more.

More security cameras coming

You’re being recorded, like it or not.

Houston is adding 180 downtown surveillance cameras despite shrinking national security grants and research showing that video feeds only sometimes improve public safety.

By early next year, the Houston Police Department will have nearly 1,000 camera feeds available. Most record public areas around downtown, stadiums and event spaces like the George R. Brown Convention Center and the Theater District.

“With all the homeland security requirements that we have – we have more critical infrastructure to protect than New York City – we can’t do it without video,” said HPD Chief Charles McClelland.

Federal Homeland Security grants first issued in 2003 sparked a rush in many American cities to expand video surveillance networks in an attempt to deter or help apprehend terrorists. With cameras in place and police agencies collaborating at unprecedented levels, local departments also have used the video networks to combat local crime amid shrinking patrol budgets in many cities.

“We see the federal government handing out lots of money for anti-terrorism programs, but it actually ends up being used against parole violators and to issue traffic tickets,” said David Maass, spokesman for the civil rights advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation.

City Councilman C.O. Bradford, a former Houston police chief, said the technology is necessary for modern police work.

“It is almost professional malpractice not to have technology deployed in public areas where you know large groups of people are going to gather on a regular basis,” Bradford said earlier this month after the City Council approved grant funding for 180 new cameras downtown.

Nancy La Vigne, a justice policy researcher with the nonprofit Urban Institute, said cameras can help but never replace officers patrolling a beat.

“You need that human interaction,” La Vigne said.

She pointed to her 2011 study, funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, analyzing local use of surveillance networks. Her findings showed the effects on crime and cost benefits varied widely.

The city of Houston has had downtown cameras since 2007, and cameras in other parts of the city more recently. (We also have a lot of traffic monitoring cameras, but they don’t appear to be part of this discussion.) It would be nice if we could get some objective data about their effectiveness in Houston, if only so we could know where they might be best deployed going forward. Unfortunately, all we’ve got is anecdotal information. How can we know if we’re using these things to their best advantage, or if we’re even using them effectively at all, without some kind of metrics in place? I’d feel better about this expenditure if someone could show me some numbers.

Going after the dumpers

Glad to see this.


City Council District B will be the site of a pilot program in which five surveillance video cameras have been placed in undisclosed locations, [Mayor Annise] Parker announced. The cameras will be monitored in real time by the Houston Police Department’s Environmental Investigations Unit, which will relay information about illegal dumping incidents to patrol officers for follow-up.

Should the three-month pilot project prove effective, the city will buy another 20 cameras under a budget amendment by District B Councilman Jerry Davis.

“The pile of trash behind me is disgusting,” Parker said on the 1500 block of Maxine. “But the really bad news, the worst news, is that we have problems like this all over Houston. It’s bad enough when we have a condition like this in an out-of-the-way area that no one can see and experience. But we have conditions like this in neighborhoods. On tucked-away corners behind houses that our citizens have to deal with every day.”

This year’s city budget included $250,000 to buy new cameras, as well as upgrade those currently in use. The city long has used surveillance cameras to fight illegal dumping, Parker said, but because of changes in technology, including better visuals and reliability, “it was a good time to do this again.”

Parker hopes the program will identify 50 to 80 illegal dumping cases a month. HPD’s environmental investigations unit has investigated 1,159 cases so far this year, said officer Stephen Dicker.

Here’s the city’s press release on the initiative. Note the use of surveillance cameras, which in this instance strikes me as an appropriate way to deploy them to help fight crime. If you’re wondering about HPD having to watch hours of video to catch these dumpers, technology will lend a hand to that effort. I hope that effort turns out to be very successful.

Hall’s five point crimefighting plan

From the inbox:

Ben Hall

Ben Hall

Houstonians do not feel safe in their homes and their communities. Houston’s crime numbers remain dangerously high and criminals are victimizing us daily. The only thing we hear from the Mayor’s office on this issue is silence. It is unacceptable.

“As Mayor, I will make sure that criminals know this City belongs to the law-abiding, and not to criminals. Criminals are not welcome in this city! I intend to send a clear message that we will no longer sit by and allow criminals to hurt, kill and maim the innocent. Your time is up in Houston!” said mayoral candidate Ben Hall. “The current mayor has announced no effective plan to address the problem, instead believing this to be a designated function of just the police. Leadership is needed to set a tone of intolerance for criminal conduct in this city. The consequences of crime are too high for a mayor to remain silent.”

Houston has witnessed too much horror at the hands of criminals. A few days ago, armed robbers opened fire in a Denny’s fatally shooting a grandfather who was shielding children from flying bullets. Shortly thereafter, burglars broke into Sheriff Adrian Garcia’s home and stole his weapon. This must stop!

Contrary to what Ms. Parker claimed earlier this year, Houston has a growing problem with crime. According to FBI crime numbers, Houston murders, robberies, and theft went up between 2011 and 2012. In 2012, Houston experienced 26,630 burglaries, the highest number in the entire country. “It seems that the truth just does not matter to Mayor Parker,” continued Hall. “Crime is too important an issue to play politics with.”

As mayor, Hall is committed to making public safety a top priority and has set forth a five-point plan to tackle this epidemic. His plan includes:

  1. Increasing collaboration between all local law enforcement authorities and upgrading radio communications;
  2. Increasing crime deterrence initiatives in neighborhoods with the use of camera technology;
  3. Stabilizing pension challenges for law enforcement and first-responders and increasing the number of officers;
  4. Having non-violent criminals pay off their sentences by performing community services; and
  5. Expanding job creation programs for first-time offenders to prevent re-imprisonment.

This five-point policy proposal will be further detailed at

I’ve been critical of Hall’s largely details-free campaign so far, and while this isn’t exactly a dissertation it is something specific to examine and critique. Kudos for that, and I hope that promise about further detailing is kept. Now let’s take a look at what is there.

Item 1 is something we’ve seen before. It was a campaign issue in 2009. In fact, Annise Parker, Gene Locke, and Peter Brown all made promises about better coordination with other agencies and upgraded communications equipment. It would be totally fair to examine Mayor Parker’s record and point out wherever she has fallen short.

Item 2 is also something we’ve seen before. The city of Houston already has an extensive network of surveillance cameras, in places like downtown, Westchase, the Medical Center, and on Metro buses and trains. There may be an argument for putting them in other parts of town. There’s also an argument that surveillance cameras generally have no effect on crime and raise legitimate concerns about privacy and government overreach (*cough* *cough* NSA *cough* *cough*). As with item 1, just having it as a bullet point on a campaign platform is not enough to tell us what your intentions are.

I have no idea what “stabilizing pension challenges” has to do with crimefighting, but then Hall has been deliberately vague about his pension plans all along. Unlike the firefighters’ pension plan, the police pension fund is already subject to meet and confer, and it has made numerous concessions to the city in recent years. As for hiring more officers, again this is something everyone promised in 2009. Mayor Parker also promised to shield the public safety budget from the axe in 2010. Far as I know, she kept that promise, as no police officers or firefighters were laid off, but again it would be totally fair to examine that in more detail.

It’s not clear what exactly a Mayor can do about Item Four. At the very least, one would need to have a conversation with the Harris County District Attorney, the various criminal court judges, and possibly the Legislature to make this happen. I favor the idea, but as always, it’s a question of how Hall plans to achieve it. One thing the Mayor could do is direct HPD to issue citations instead of arresting traffic violators and low level drug offenders, as that would help keep the jails from getting too crowded and would allow the cops to stay on the streets more instead of spending hours hauling these non-violent and mostly non-scary people downtown and processing them. Unlike some of these other issues, no one was proposing that back in 2009, and it would likely cause a fair amount of pushback from HPD, which would require spending some political capital to implement it.

Finally, on Item 5, a similar proposal was offered as an amendment to this year’s city budget. The amendment, made by CM Larry Green and backed by CM C.O. Bradford, was to allocate $3 million for a summer jobs program for youth. That’s not exactly the same thing, but it has the same goal.

That also highlights a point that is implicit in these proposals but is otherwise unmentioned, and that’s that most of them will cost money. Upgrading communications equipment costs money. So do surveillance cameras. Houston bought some of the latter with federal Homeland Security grants, and I believe they got some grants for the former as well, but those grants may be harder to come by in this day and age of sequestration and general Republican nihilism. (Good luck calling on either of our Senators to do some budget mojo on our behalf.) Public safety is already the single biggest piece of the budget, and hiring more officers would add to that. I generally support most of Hall’s proposals, and in the case of those that have been around for a few years I’ve supported them all along, but each of these things starts with the question of how Hall, or any Mayor, would pay for them. Not to keep beating a dead horse, but this is why the details matter. Having worthwhile goals is nice. Having worthwhile goals and a clear path to achieving them is necessary. We can’t properly evaluate Hall’s plan without knowing his plan to fund it.

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story, which includes a point I hadn’t considered.

As for Hall’s plan to have inmates work off their sentences instead of sitting in their cells, Parker campaign spokeswoman Sue Davis said city inmates stay an average of 24 hours before being released or transferred to the county lockup, making it impractical to put them to work.

Hall said it is the same taxpayers footing the bill, regardless of the jail. He said he is interested in finding a way to put county or city inmates to work on behalf of the public.

“While we’d always want to work with the city to maximize that resource, there’s not a lot of room for expansion,” said Alan Bernstein, spokesman for Sheriff Adrian Garcia, who runs the county jail.

All low-level, nonviolent county jail inmates willing and eligible to participate in outside work already do so, Bernstein said. As of Monday, 196 inmates were approved for outside work, performing graffiti abatement, tree planting and beautification along bayous and other public rights of way, Bernstein said. That number is difficult to increase because more inmates – 793, on Monday – are needed inside the jail for chores the county otherwise would have to pay for, he said.

I was thinking about the legalities of the proposal, but the practicalities need to be considered as well.

No more RFID for Northside ISD

Nortside ISD in San Antonio has quit using RFID trackers in student IDs to keep tabs on them, and has embraced an alternate technological solution to the problem of ensuring an accurate headcount instead.

Northside Independent School District spokesman Pascual Gonzalez told me that the microchip-ID program turned out not to be worth the trouble. Its main goal was to increase attendance by allowing staff to locate students who were on campus but didn’t show up for roll call. That was supposed to lead to increased revenue. But attendance at the two schools in question—a middle school and a high school—barely budged in the year that the policy was in place. And school staff found themselves wasting a lot of time trying to physically track down the missing students based on their RFID locators.

Andrea Hernandez, the student whose family unsuccessfully sued the district on religious grounds and referred to the IDs as “the mark of the beast,” is reportedly thrilled by the decision. She had ended up transferring to another school to avoid the IDs.

But the backlash and the lawsuit weren’t the deciding factors, Gonzalez told me. “While [privacy groups] are extolling the fact that they won, the fact is that that was a very minor part of our conversation, because the federal court and the court of appeals both upheld Northside’s position on that. We were on solid ground.”

Indeed, the district never acknowledged that the chips posed legitimate privacy concerns, adhering all along to the reasoning that Gonzalez expressed to me when I first talked to him about this last fall: “By virtue of the fact that you are a student at school, there is no privacy.” No doubt other schools will echo that line when they adopt RFID or similar technologies in the years to come, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a high court rule on a similar case at some point in the future. Gonzalez is right that students on a campus have less expectation of privacy than adults, but “no privacy” seems a little extreme. The question of how much offline tracking is too much is also likely to arise in workplaces as employers use RFID tags to bust workers for, say, spending too much time in the bathroom.

Meanwhile, Gonzalez told me Northside plans to capture the safety and security benefits of RFID chips through other technological means. “We’re very confident we can still maintain a safe and secure school because of the 200 cameras that are installed at John Jay High School and the 100 that are installed at Jones Middle School. Plus we are upgrading those surveillance systems to high-definition and more sophisticated cameras. So there will be a surveillance-camera umbrella around both schools.”

See here, here, and here for the background. The Lege took a look at restricting RFID use by school districts to track students in this manner, but the bill never made it to the House floor. The outcome here doesn’t mean they won’t try again, however. I thought Northside had a legitimate reason for doing what they did and wasn’t particularly bothered by it, so I have no strong feelings about this new solution one way or the other. Both the student plaintiff and her legal squad seem happy with this, so I’ll leave it to you to decide if this is “better” from a privacy perspective or not.

Cameras everywhere

Red light cameras get all the attention, but there are a lot more cameras in Houston. This story about the city’s network of surveillance cameras that have been installed by the Mayor’s Office of Public Safety and Homeland Security gives some details.

So far, drawing on $14 million in federal grants, the office has installed 330 cameras, of which 266 are providing live feeds to the city network. That network is also tied into 260 cameras installed inside City Hall and other city buildings. TranStar cameras on freeways and Metro’s rail-line surveillance are also hooked up to the system.

Next stop is reaching an agreement to tie into security cameras monitoring streets in the Texas Medical Center, officials said.

There are cameras in the Westchase District, too.

Houston’s journey into the ranks of cities that keep a close watch on their public spaces has been a gradual one – and reviews are mixed.

Civil rights activists view the network with suspicion, while others believe it is a worthwhile use of modern technology in a time of tightened budgets.

Mark Bennett, a criminal defense attorney and former president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyer Association, is concerned not only about privacy issues but the potential for abuse.

“I don’t like the government having cameras on me every chance they can get,” Bennett said. “Human beings should have privacy in their lives, and they shouldn’t have to go to seek it out. It should be presumed that our affairs are our own, rather than the government’s. We start to feel like pets in cages with Big Brother looking down on us all the time.”

He believes there is a vast risk that city government, or individual employees, could use the system to spy for their own purposes.

“Imagine a police officer who is concerned about what his wife does during the day, and has his buddies set up the cameras to watch her,” Bennett said. “Having government employees abuse government power for personal purposes is far from unheard of in this town.”

Elsewhere, too. For better or worse, this is the world we live in, and barring any legislative intervention – which would require a sea change in voter attitudes – it’s not going away any time soon. There are benefits to the cameras and there are costs, and so far public opinion sides with those who think the benefits outweigh those costs. I share Bennett’s concerns, but I don’t see anything changing. At the very least, if we’re going to go down this road I’d prefer for it to happen after a thorough public discussion, instead of it just happening behind the scenes while no one is really paying attention, but again I don’t see that happening. There’s plenty of people who want to make red light cameras an electoral issue, and more power to them for trying, but until there’s an equivalent mass making an issue out of all these other cameras, why shouldn’t the Office of Public Safety keep doing what it’s doing?

Video-enabled radar guns

I’m just curious what people think of this:

Plano could soon become one of the nation’s first cities to equip police with laser speed guns that also capture video.

Police say the handheld equipment would provide courts with indisputable evidence that speeders would find difficult to contest.


The camera guns, which cost as much as $6,000 apiece, are nearly three times the cost of the laser guns that police currently use. Moreover, Plano’s proposal comes as other kinds of traffic cameras, such as those meant to catch red-light runners, have met a backlash.

Authorities in Plano tried to make a clear distinction between the video-equipped guns they are considering and the automated traffic cameras that have drawn criticism.

The proposed camera guns are not automated, but operated by police in the field. As such, their purpose is not to replace patrols or catch more speeders, but to give police the chance to collect irrefutable evidence of traffic violations that unfold in front of them.

To me, this isn’t really all that different than what we have today. These camera-enabled laser guns aren’t going to catch anyone that wouldn’t have been caught without them. They just simply might take the fight out of someone who doesn’t think they were speeding. Given that about 0.5% of speeding citations in Plano end up in court, according to the story, I’m not sure how much difference that will make, but let’s grant the hypothesis for the sake of argument. What is your opinion of this technological development? Are they like red light cameras or not, and if so is your opinion of them the same or not?

Or is this a better use of laser beams?

I’m not sure how the cameras would fit in, but I daresay we could come up with something.

How much would you pay for those border cameras?

Remember all those border cameras Rick Perry wanted to install so ordinary citizens in the comfort of their living rooms could help catch people entering the country illegally? How have they worked out?

Perry has invested a total of $4 million of federal grant money that he controls in the Texas Border Watch Program. Twenty-nine cameras have been installed on the 1,200-mile Texas-Mexico border, or one camera for every 41 miles of border. Internet viewers have helped police make a total of 26 arrests — that’s about $153,800 per arrest. And some border law agencies are not even using the cameras for police work.

Perry first gave the Texas Border Sheriffs Coalition $2 million in 2008 to launch the border camera program. Progress reports from that year showed the program fell far short of nearly all its law enforcement goals, including arrests, cash forfeitures and immigration apprehensions. Only a fraction of the cameras Perry initially wanted had been installed, and the program had generated none of the self-sustaining advertising revenue called for in the camera contract.

In 2008, the cameras were expected to generate 1,200 arrests, $25,000 in cash forfeitures, 50,000 incident reports and 4,500 immigration referrals. Under the grant objectives, the coalition was supposed to install 200 cameras. Instead, that year 13 cameras generated three arrests, zero cash forfeitures, eight incident reports, and six immigration referrals.

And remember, Rick Perry thinks this program has been a success. Makes you wonder what he thinks a failure looks like. Stace has more.

Virtual border fence: Still a failure

Our Governor in action.

Gov. Rick Perry’s border Web camera program has run out of money, and in its first full year of operation failed to meet nearly every law enforcement goal.

Last year, Perry gave the Texas Border Sheriffs Coalition a $2 million federal grant to install cameras along the U.S.-Mexico border and broadcast the footage live over the Internet. An internal report showed that a fraction of the 200 cameras Perry wanted on the border were installed, and that Internet border patrollers produced a handful of drug busts and a scattering of arrests.


Perry is seeking another $2 million to prop up the project that was supposed to become self-sustaining. After being shown a report that indicated the cameras fell far short of their goals, Perry’s staff produced a new, revised report that put the program in a more positive light.

The grant that financed the program has expired, and the sheriffs coalition says that without more funding, the cameras will go dark.

The first thing you need to know is that this was a federal grant that paid for those cameras. Darn that fascistic federal government and its dirty, dirty money! I mean, if we know one thing right now it’s that Republican governors just can’t handle temptation.

Original goals for the program were unrealistic, said sheriffs coalition executive director Don Reay. He said the cameras have been a success.

“We’re hoping there will be a new (grant) offered for next year,” he said.

In its first full year, the camera Web site drew more than 39 million hits and caught the attention of national and international media.
But interviews and reports the El Paso Times obtained indicate the nearly 125,000 “virtual Texas deputies” registered on the site led law enforcement to just eight drug busts and 11 arrests.


The sheriffs coalition was to install 200 cameras, but only 17 were up and running. That’s about one camera for every 70 miles of the 1,200-mile Texas-Mexico border.

The cameras were expected to generate 1,200 arrests. The sheriffs coalition reported 11.

Internet border watchers’ reports led to the referral of about 300 undocumented immigrants to U.S. Border Patrol officials. That was about 6 percent of the 4,500 referrals the program was expected to generate.

Reay explained the gap between the objectives and the results in this response on the report: “Original goals were not realistic. Problems encountered was an element of the press who did everything within their power to negate the problem (sic).”

Boy, if only being a naysayer granted the power to negate problems! I’d be, like, a superhero or something by now.

After questions about results in the year-end report and whether funding would be renewed for the cameras, Perry spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger produced a different report.

The newly produced report showed objectives radically reduced from the original goals.

Instead of 200 cameras, it said the sheriffs coalition was expected to install only 15, making it appear as if the group exceeded its goals by installing 17 cameras.

The target number of arrests was revised downward from 1,200 to 25, much closer to the 11 arrests the sheriffs coalition actually made.

The original objectives, Cesinger said, were supposed to have been revised after a six-month progress report earlier this year showed the program was far from meeting its targets. There was some sort of “glitch” in the reporting process, she said.

If at first you don’t succeed, lower your standards. That could be Rick Perry’s campaign slogan. I must note that they did tell us that they intended to define success down six months ago, so we can’t say we weren’t warned.

Despite the small number of arrests, the few cameras installed and the failure of the program to become self-sustaining, Cesinger said, Perry was convinced the program deterred crime and should be funded again.

“The bad guys know there are an extra pair eyes on the border,” she said.


University of Texas at El Paso anthropology Professor Josiah Heyman, a border expert, called the Texas Border Watch program “expensive and dumb.”

Seventeen cameras on the vast expanse of borderland between Mexico and Texas, he said, would do little to stop the illegal flow of drugs and people into the United States.

“The cameras out in open country are just completely a distraction from the elephant in the room,” Heyman said.

Most contraband that enters the country, he said, comes through the ports of entry. The backpacks and Hummers full of drugs that come through the brush country between the ports are small potatoes compared with the semi-trucks and train cars loaded down with drugs and people that often make it through the complex and overloaded land port security system.

“Two million dollars would be a drop in the bucket, but it would be an a lot more effective drop in the bucket if it was focused on ports of entry instead of wide-open spaces,” Heyman said.

The irony of all this, of course, is that Rick Perry is the first in line to call all kinds of government spending “wasteful”. It’s just that by some strange coincidence, the things that he considers wasteful are all programs he doesn’t like. Here we have convincing empirical evidence that this is a wasteful program, one that doesn’t come close to meeting the goals that were set for it, and by spending money on this program we’re not spending an equivalent amount on something else that actually would be effective. But it’s something that Rick Perry likes, for whatever the reason, and so he wants to keep shoveling money into it, convinced that it can work better if we just keep trying. You really couldn’t come up with a better illustration of the emptiness of “wasteful government spending” rhetoric if you tried.

Mattress Mack is watching you

Be sure to smile for the cameras if you visit the Westchase District.

A West Houston nonprofit group on Tuesday applied for city permission to install the first of a dozen security cameras it plans to purchase to reduce crime in the affluent neighborhood.

Images from the cameras will be fed to the Houston Police Department as part of an ongoing city initiative to assemble a network of hundreds of security cameras to monitor public streets, stadiums, freeways and the Port of Houston.

Calling it a prime example of a private-public partnership for public safety, HPD Assistant Chief Vickie King said the westside initiative is allowed by city ordinance.

“Communities who want to install cameras that capture movements on the public right of way may do so, so long as private property is shielded from view,” she said.

The proposed camera system was introduced Tuesday by Houston businessman Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale and his wife, Linda, who live in an apartment at the Westside Tennis and Fitness Center, which they own. McIngvale said he became a fan of camera-surveillance technology because it quickly ended auto thefts and burglaries after he installed them at his furniture business.

“Police are stretched on their budgets, so it’s something we wanted to do as merchants,” said McIngvale, a member of the nonprofit Operation Westside Success, which is raising money for the system. “We’ve got a big economic stake in this, and it’s up to us to make our neighborhoods better.”

Dennis Storemski, director of the Mayor’s Office of Public Safety and Homeland Security, said the city has 25 surveillance cameras in the central business district and is using federal grants to tie into state highway-department cameras on Houston freeways, as well as cameras monitoring the Houston Ship Channel and port facilities.

Yes, I remember when the existing downtown cameras became more ubiquitous. At the time, the goal was given as crime reduction as well as better response to emergency calls. While the former is clearly a goal of the Westchase cameras, it’s interesting to note that wasn’t mentioned here as a function of the downtown cameras. Not sure if that reflects an official shift or just the vagaries of editing, but I thought it was worth pointing out. I also rememher that some folks got all freaked out by the downtown cameras, which were an initiative of HPD Chief Harold Hurtt, who is not mentioned in this story. I wonder if there will be a similar reaction to this.

James Murphy, general manager of the Westchase District, said cameras the improvement district installed on private property outside restaurants and shopping malls led to a dramatic reduction in crime.

“We have 11 cameras we’re using, and it’s fantastic,” Murphy said. “We’ve reduced parking-lot crime in those locations 70 percent on average, and in some areas more. We’re talking about auto theft, auto break-ins and robberies.”

Somewhat serendipitously, this story appeared a day after this one, about a study on the CCTV cameras in London.

The use of closed-circuit television in city and town centres and public housing estates does not have a significant effect on crime, according to Home Office-funded research to be distributed to all police forces in England and Wales this summer.

The review of 44 research studies on CCTV schemes by the Campbell Collaboration found that they do have a modest impact on crime overall but are at their most effective in cutting vehicle crime in car parks, especially when used alongside improved lighting and the introduction of security guards.

That seems to jibe with the Westchase experience. As long as they don’t see the cameras as a panacea, they ought to get some benefit from them. Thanks to Grits for the link.

The border camera boondoggle blues

Your tax dollars at work, courtesy of Governor Perry.

A virtual border surveillance program Gov. Rick Perry has committed millions of taxpayer dollars to fell far short of expectations during the first six months of operation.

Border sheriffs, who Perry gave $2 million to line the Texas-Mexico border with hundreds of Web cameras, installed only about a dozen and made just a handful of apprehensions as a result of tips from online viewers.

Reports obtained by the El Paso Times under the Texas Public Information Act show that the cameras produced a fraction of the objectives Perry outlined.

Perry’s office acknowledged the reported results were a far from the expectations but said the problem was with the yardstick used to measure the outcome and not with the camera program.

“The progress reports need to be adjusted to come in line with the strategy,” said Perry spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger.

How about aligning it to the cost of implementation? Crazy idea, I know.

In the first six months of the grant period, the coalition spent $625,000 to get the cameras running.

The Web site went public Nov. 19, and in the first month saw nearly 2 million hits.

All those hits didn’t translate into much law enforcement work, though, according to a six-month progress report required for the grant.

The report describes both the objectives for the program during the first year of the grant and how much progress was made in achieving those goals.

The coalition’s goal was to make 1,200 arrests as a result of tips from the online cameras in the first year of the project.

They made three arrests in the first six months, according to the progress report.

Of some 4,500 suspected immigration violations they expected to report to U.S. Border Patrol in the year, the first six months produced six.

The report also showed the group installed just 13 of 200 cameras it planned to install this year.

Boy, that makes it almost as effective as the high school steroid testing program. Which was declared a success by its boosters, by the way. Gotta love that alignment of progress and strategy.

As the story notes, Perry has had a long fascination with the idea of border cameras and an army of online border-camera-watchers. The fact that the first, smaller-scale version of this was about as effective hasn’t cooled his ardor for them.

Some lawmakers panned the program as ineffective, and in 2007 legislators denied Perry’s request to fund more cameras and resume the online offensive.

Last year, though, Perry secured $2 million in federal grant money to get the cameras online.

But when his office sought a vendor, none would do the job for that price.

So Perry turned to the border sheriffs, a group he had previously given tens of millions for border security operations.

The sheriffs contracted with a social-networking company called Blueservo to set up the cameras and the Web site.

Once enough users sign up, the company says it plans to sell advertising on the site to generate a profit and pay for the border camera effort.

Cesinger said Perry is committed to the camera program because it uses technology to help secure the border, a mission the federal government has failed to accomplish.

“It’s utilizing technology so you don’t have to pay for an extra set of eyes,” she said.

You know, I’m thinking that for two million bucks you could probably get more than one extra set of eyes, and that you’d get a lot more results from them as well. I know, I know, that’s crazy talk. But at least it’s not as crazy as the idea that you could pay for these cameras in perpetuity with advertising revenue from a border camera social networking scheme. Seriously, who thinks this stuff up? I hope this program meets the same fate as its predecessor.