A small Harris County town will be the first in the country to install a virtual safety gate, a network of cameras and license plate readers that records vehicles traveling through the city.

West University Place, a wealthy enclave within the city of Houston, is installing the “gate” to tackle crime and because of their lack of police officer applicants. Their solution will create a virtual safety gate of interconnected cameras that monitor every vehicle entering and exiting the city 24 hours a day.

“We hope using databases and being able to go back after a crime to search the database will deter people from coming to commit a crime,” said West University Place Police Chief Ken Walker.

Walker said crime has dropped 23.6 percent since 2017, and he feels the new system could further enhance overall public safety. The virtual border will cost the city’s 15,000 residents $4.5 million. Because of the size of the city, the police chief said it’s “practical” to monitor all entrances and exits.

“As part of this program, we want to have license plate readers at all entrances of the city,” Walker said during a recent council meeting. He indicated they would collect information on anyone coming in or out who has stolen vehicles, had domestic violence or sexual assault offenses, or has made threats. The cameras would also record any vehicle using paper license plates because, according to Walker, “they seem to be what many criminals are using now.”

The system would alert West University Place Police Department whenever one of these vehicles crossed the boundaries.

There have also been conversations, according to the chief, with schools and churches to connect their security systems to the city’s grid so police can gain access to more cameras. He said there is also an interest in asking citizens to connect their own home security systems—only external-viewing cameras—for an even greater surveillance ability.

West University Elementary was reportedly interested in participating, but when it got to Houston Independent School District’s administration for approval, they rejected the idea.

Residents and commuters have spoken out against the program, calling it “disturbing” that the city would have a comprehensive camera system to track someone as they traveled through the city.

But for those worried, their concerns may soon be put to rest, as new state legislation proposed by State Sen. Bob Hall (R–Edgewood) could automatically end this program.

“An interesting bill was introduced by Senator Bob Hall from Rockwall. If that bill passes, we will not be able to keep that license plate information from the license plate readers (LPR),” Walker said. “According to this bill, we will have to destroy it promptly, and it will take away our ability to use the LPR.”

Installation of the cameras will take place in the next few months which, coincidently, is when the legislative session wraps up.

Charles Blain

Charles Blain is the president of Urban Reform and Urban Reform Institute. A native of New Jersey, he is based in Houston and writes on municipal finance and other urban issues.


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