HOUSTON—An I-Team analysis of internal Metro records reveals alarming problems with the transit agency’s high-tech, multi-million-dollar security surveillance system.
They begin with Metro’s "eyes in the sky"—pole-mounted, remote-controlled security cameras that are supposed to watch, guard and reassure those commuters who park and ride.
The problem? The $16-million watchdog often goes blind, forcing Metro police officers to monitor the cameras in the dark.
"That’s not good, man," said commuter Ryan Key.
"It’s pretty mind-boggling," added Annette Nagel.
Consider the Cypress Park and Ride lot, where according to Metro’s internal records, "All cameras stall or [are] slow." They stayed that way not just for a few hours, or even a few days or weeks. It took Metro five months to fix the problem, putting unsuspecting commuters and their cars at increased risk.
"I think that’s terrible," said Stefann Robinson, who routinely uses the Cypress Park and Ride lot.
I-Team: "What do you think that does for a thief?"
Robinson: "Well that gives them the advantage, it gives them an opportunity."
It turns out, there have been lots of opportunities. The I-Team found 699 cases of Metro cameras disconnected or not working properly, such as out-of-focus cameras, cameras with distorted video, frozen video, or those that just plain stopped. The reasons for that vary, according to the records. Sometimes the fix required a simple reboot of the system. In other cases, a server overheated and maintenance crews had to replace an entire air-conditioning system in the building where the computer equipment was stored.
Worse yet? We found entire Park and Ride lots going blind for days or even weeks. It happened 69 times between November 2009 and May 2012.
So we had some questions for the man who pushed hard for the safety system, Tom Lambert, former Metro Chief of Police and now a Metro executive.
I-Team: "For 16 million bucks, should this be happening? Is that acceptable?"
Lambert: "No that’s not acceptable…I’m not going to disagree with you that you’re going to have system deficiencies that you’ve got to work to improve."
One deficiency often cripples one of the system’s best features. It can actually spot movement on the ground, and then alert the officer on duty with a red box. The officer can zoom in, investigate if something’s wrong, and take appropriate law-enforcement action.
But when the system doesn’t alert, what appears is often a wide shot that is essentially useless in tracking down a thief. That’s what happened at the West Bellfort Park and Ride during a string of vehicle break-ins this March.
We showed the video to one burglary victim, who asked not to be identified.
"If I can’t see my car from the camera then I’m wondering how somebody would be able to catch somebody trying to break in," the victim said.
"I’ve been really concerned about parking my car here," he added.
The I-Team discovered between November 2009 and May 2012, Metro’s video alert system died a dozen different times across the entire grid. That’s every one of the 26 Park and Rides. The fix took from a day to more than a month.
On top of going blind, Metro also couldn’t hear possible cries for help at times. Why? The emergency call boxes at Park and Rides were broken 57 times over the past two years.
"I’m not going to sit here and say it’s a perfect system," Lambert said. "I think it’s a good system, but it’s something you’ve got to constantly work on and constantly focus on."
But if that’s the case, then why did Metro constantly ignore the very basics, like not having standard operating procedures, according to an internal audit the I-Team obtained.
I-Team: "How can you have a $16 million system and not have a booklet, an operating procedure booklet on how to manage it?"
Lambert: "We probably should have standard operating procedures to cover all aspects of operating that system, unfortunately we did not."
But Lambert claimed the bottom line is the system has produced results. Crime has gone down more than 40 percent, and arrests have gone up since the system was launched in 2005.
I-Team: "Was 16 million bucks worth it?’
Lambert: "Yes. I’m being very straight, yes I think it was."
Lambert said Metro performed a major software upgrade on the system in June 2011, and that eliminated many of the bugs. He also said anytime an entire Park and Ride lot goes down, Metro dispatches an officer to the scene to patrol while repairs on being made.
Metro spends approximately $800,000 per year on maintenance of the system.