It’s time for a Virtual Gated West University…not because we’re afraid but because it’s smart crime-fighting
In 1998, when a guy running for city council said he wanted to put cameras at every entrance to West University Place, I was horrified. It sounded like a communist plot, an obvious invasion of the of privacy rights of law-abiding citizens.
I have changed my mind, and not because of rising crime.
Crime ebbs and flows. And yes, in recent years, West U crime has creeped up. “It bothers us when there is any crime, let alone violent crime,” said West University Place Police Chief Ken Walker. “For several years, voters have demanded low taxes, and we are seeing the result of some of that now.” Walker said overall crime in West University appears to be going down after a noticeable uptick last year (see accompanying story).
The reason I changed my mind about the appropriateness of our police department using cameras in public spaces is because our privacy expectations have changed.
We now expect to be recorded on video when we shop, when we exercise, and when we talk on the phone. People take videos of everything. I was eating a sandwich at a restaurant the other day, and a kid came came over to shoot a video of my lunch.
Americans come in different colors and shapes, some are rich, others are poor. But the one thing we have in common is that we all have a cell phone with a camera and a voice recorder. The result is that the days of any expectation of privacy in public areas have left the building.
The world has changed — maybe for the good — but it doesn’t matter. The change is baked into today’s society. So we would be remiss if we didn’t use this acknowledgment of a changing social order to give our police department surveillance camera systems as a tool to help solve crimes.
And solve crimes it will. In fact, in West U, surveillance camera systems can be a more efficient crime-solving tool than in other cities.
Why? Because West University Place is small, less than two square miles, and we have zero apartments, and a limited number of access points. It is safe to say every robber or burglar drives in our city a few minutes before they rob or burgle, and they speed out of West U the second after their crime is committed.
So, if we had a Virtual Gated Community, our police would have a very high probability of identifying the criminal vehicle in short order. Most other police departments could not use surveillance camera systems with this same level of efficiency we could in West U.
Cities all across the country are using surveillance camera systems. Sugar Land has 87, Stafford just approved nine. The city of Houston has more than 1,000 cameras, mostly in downtown.
Our camera units will be mounted on poles. Each camera unit is actually two cameras, one a high-definition infrared and used to used capture an image of the license plate, then to identify the pixel patterns that make up a license plate and finally to convert the image to a text format. The data can then be automatically sent to various criminal databases where it is compared to automatically to real-time wanted lists. If the system detects a match, it can send an alert to the police dispatcher.
The second camera takes a color photo of the entire vehicle, and often captures a usable picture of the people in the vehicle.
Some cities use surveillance camera systems to chase down anyone who has an overdue out-of-state parking ticket. I wouldn’t think that would be the case in West U. I don’t think West U wants to be a regional crime authority for Southeast Texas, running after unpaid traffic violations from Beaumont.
But a Virtual Gated Community would be an instantaneous and effective tool to help our police solve crimes against our citizenry. The bad actors would learn quickly that nothing happens in West U that the police don’t know about.
It will be like having more police officers, but without the sick days and overtime. The cost of establishing a Virtual Gated Community would be less than $2.4 million, or about $400 per household.
Is it worth the money? I think so. It has been my experience that even my most tax-chintzy neighbors are willing to spend money on things that they want.
When I moved to West University Place in 1990, I had a cassette deck in my car. My new car streams music from my cellphone. A cassette tape still works, but streaming music works better.
I want to give the West University Police Department the newest, and best, tools available to help them protect us. And let’s send a message to the bad guys that you can’t enter West University Place without getting your picture taken.