Police Chief Ken Walker is concerned for the city of West University Place.

Walker said more and more, the West University Police Department has stopped people driving through the city with extensive criminal backgrounds, people who the chief believes should still be in prison.

“They were given early release; their parole was ended sooner than it should have been; and many of these people are registered sex offenders, murderers, really violent types,” Walker said. “We began to see that many years ago, and it’s only increased in the last several years.

Those things concern me.”

Though the crime rate in West University has gone down from around 200 reported property crimes in 2007 to around 140 in 2017, Walker said he is worried about the city’s future as surrounding Houston’s population continues to rise.

While the usual method for dealing with the possibility of an increase in crime is to hire more police officers, Walker said that is no longer an option for West University as it has become increasingly difficult to hire more qualified police officers in a department that is already understaffed.

The police department has 23 out of 26 police officers and six out of nine police dispatchers that could be staffed.

“One is that it’s expensive, and two is that we can’t find them,” Walker said. “I’ve talked to the chiefs from all over the nation, and everybody has the same problem. You can’t hire high-quality police anymore in large numbers.”

To increase the capabilities of the police department, Walker and Gary MacFarland, the information technology director of West University, have proposed what they call Virtual Gate—a $4.5 million system of cameras that will monitor the streets going through the city to alert police of cars registered to those with criminal records as well as suspicious activity going on in the area.

How it works

Once in place, the proposed Virtual Gate plan will include the installation of both license plate-reading cameras and surveillance cameras situated in strategic locations throughout the major roads of the city.

“The city of Houston had their red light cameras for some period of time before they were sued and they had to pull them,” Mayor Susan Sample said. “I want to make sure that we all understand that these are not red light cameras.”

License plate-reading cameras will cover all lanes of traffic on certain roads and alert the West University Police Department of any vehicles that are stolen, associated with amber or silver alerts, or are registered to individuals with a record of violent crimes.

“If we have the vehicle description or license plate, we can put it in our system, and if that vehicle comes into town we’ll get an alert,” Walker said. “It gives us massive surveillance of the public parts of the city.”

Alerts can also be given to police officers if registered sex offenders enter areas prohibited to them, domestic violence suspects enter areas of concern, and even those who have made violent or terroristic threats pass through the area.

On top of that, the surveillance cameras can be used to assist investigators after a crime has been committed and provide a live feed for dispatchers so officers have more information when responding to an alert. They can also be used to notify police officers of motion being detected late at night.

Because of the expense involved in storing all the data collected by the cameras, the police chief said data collected will only be stored for 30 days.

At an informational town hall meeting in April, one resident voiced concerns about the safety of keeping a database with all of the information that the cameras collect and the possibility of it being compromised by hackers.

“For law-enforcement data there are special rules that we have to adhere to that are issued to us by through the Department of Public Safety by the Federal Bureau of Investigation,” MacFarland said. “Our regular network is not perfectly secure all the time, but I can assure you, it’s pretty dadgum good.”

The cost to implement

The construction of the Virtual Gate project is divided into two phases, the funding of which will be covered by a certificate of obligation, a type of bond, not to exceed $4.5 million and to be paid back by the city over 15 years. Publication of a notice of intent to issue the certificate was approved March 25 by West University’s City Council.

The first phase, projected to cost up to $2.34 million, will be responsible for building the project’s overall physical and technological infrastructure as well as the placement and beginning operation of cameras at 16 locations throughout the city. West University’s City Council is scheduled to select a contractor at its May 20 meeting, with construction for the phase to begin this summer.

The second phase will install cameras at 24 additional intersections and will cost up to $2.16 million. If approved by the council following a trial run of the first phase, implementation of the second phase will begin in summer 2020.

Once fully implemented, the Virtual Gate’s annual operating costs are estimated by city staff to be $360,000. The average salary of a police officer in West University Place is $100,000-$120,000 a year.

“That would be basically equivalent to three cops,” City Manager David Beach said. “It augments our police force and provides a crime-prevention tool because people will become aware of it and go somewhere else.”

While some West University residents voiced concerns about the project’s high cost, the police chief said the price was justified by the project’s potential usefulness and as a preparation for a possible increase in crime.

“We’re very fortunate in that our crime rate is relatively low,” Walker said. “It dropped from 2017 to 2018. If I thought that trend would remain constant, I wouldn’t want the city to spend that much money on the camera systems, but I don’t think it’s going to stay that way. All of the signs that I’ve seen indicate that we’re in for a tough three to five to 10 years.”

The desired effect

While the ultimate goal of Virtual Gate, according to Walker, is to act as a crime deterrent and displacement, the metrics for success will be difficult to determine, as an increase in arrests due to the camera system does not necessarily correlate with an increase in crimes being committed.

“When this thing is installed and people start getting knocked off coming here to do crimes, they talk to each other, especially in the county jail, and what we want to do is teach them to go back to Houston and steal,” Walker said. “I can’t tell you that when we introduce the system that crime will drop 50%. How do you know? But I do know that the idiots talk to each other, and if they don’t want to come here, they won’t.”

Beach said the implementation of these cameras would not lead to a reduction in the number of police officers in West University, but augment their department to assist with their duties.

“We’ll be at the same level of police officers pre- and post-cameras,” Beach said.

Down the road, the Virtual Gate could be further improved as technology increases and becomes more accessible in price to implement, with Walker already considering allowing residents to connect their private exterior cameras to the system, connecting the cameras of schools and churches, implementing facial-recognition technology, and even installing technology that can recognize shots fired and immediately alert the police of an active shooter in the area.

“Over the years, the technology has gotten better, and the costs have gone down,” Walker said. “We see an increase in violent crime in the Houston area and an increase in crime in general, and we can’t throw cops at it, so we started to look at some other way to deal with it.”