License plate camera system as virtual fence

Not much crime happens in West University Place. Not much crime, but still too much for real estate agent Heidi Dugan.

"I started working on this a year or two ago, I guess a year ago," says Dugan. "There was a stabbing across the street from me, which was crazy because nothing ever happens in West U. I've lived here for 36 years."

What she means by "working on this" is pushing the city to adopt cameras that read license plates.  Recently, her efforts paid off and the West University Place city council approved the cameras. Not a moment too soon for Dugan.

“In the last three weeks, there were three robberies, which is unheard of in the neighborhood," adds Dugan. "So the time has come.”

Forty or so cameras will guard entrances to the city. They will scan and store license plate images, which could alert police to a wanted person entering or a perpetrator driving away from a crime scene.

The project won't be cheap, so the city is phasing it in over the next few years. So far, it's funded the engineering phase. Police chief Ken Walker says the city is trying to hit a moving technology target

"We don't know what's going to be available in five years," says Chief Walker. "The technology is moving so fast, we are trying to to install the infrastructure which will support whatever technology brings us.”

Chief Walker also says these "virtual fences" are more common in the northeastern U.S. West University Place will be first in southeast Texas with such a system, but it will not be the first city in the region to have license plate reading cameras. That honor fell to Sugar Land, which adopted them around five years ago. They have them in just two busy intersections, but they have helped police solve more than twenty crimes so far, including when officers arrested Jerrod Wilson for firing a gun in Sugar Land Town Center back in July.

"We'd love to have more cameras," says Sugar Land Police Department Assistant Chief Eric Robins. "It's a great tool for us, but it's just one tool in our toolbox. It's not going to solve every crime, but we know the technology helps us."

But some privacy and civil rights advocates have raised concerns about the cameras and the information they gather. Attorney Randall Kallinen is one of the opponents.

"First of all, where is the information going?," asks Kallinen. "Who will have access to it? A lot of time, companies want to sell information to third parties because they get money."

Kallinen says he worries the data could be subject to information requests by private detectives, collection agencies and the like. Some companies like Vigilant Solutions have contracts with some cities in Texas that allows them to sell the data to other law enforcement bodies.

In 2014, the Texas Department of Public Safety studied license plate cameras and privacy issues. It concluded that Texas law exempts license plate data from public access provisions.

But for people like Dugan, the rewards far outweigh the risks.

"If you are not doing anything wrong, why do you care?,” asks Dugan.