HOUSTON — More than 300 new automatic license plate reader cameras are coming to Houston.
On Wednesday, City Council unanimously approved spending up to $6.4 million on a five-year contract with Flock Safety to lease 318 cameras.
City officials said they’ll be placed in neighborhoods across town and on city properties to help fight violent crime.
“When we have high crime and public safety concerns all over the city, we need as much surveillance as possible to aid HPD in their investigations, as well as to deter crime from happening in the first place,” Council Member Edward Pollard of District J said.
The new cameras will complement the existing network of ALPR cameras belonging to the Houston Police Department, private entities that share data with HPD, such as homeowners’ associations and businesses, and other law enforcement agencies that share data with HPD.
HPD Assistant Chief Martin said police departments in Katy, Sugar Land, Pearland and other cities share camera data with HPD.
ALPR cameras take a still photo of every car that goes by, check the license plate against a national database of stolen or wanted vehicles and alert police about any hits.
Police can also run suspect license plates against Flock Safety’s database.
“It lets us know that, ‘Hey, yes, that vehicle was seen here, here, and here on these times,’” HPD Assistant Chief Wyatt Martin said during an Aug. 4 City Council committee meeting. “It gives us leads to go about getting that violent individual off the streets before they victimize someone else.”
Police can also run a description against photos in the database, which Martin told council members is important because of all the crimes involving vehicles with fake paper plates.
However, the ACLU of Texas has previously raised concerns about the cameras.
“They can be appropriate and even beneficial tools to solve serious crimes, but without those safeguards, the tools can raise serious privacy and transparency concerns,” Nick Hudson of the ACLU of Texas said during a February interview with KHOU11 News. "We don't want the government to be able to have information that allows it to piece together where people go to church, who they're seeing and what neighborhoods they're hanging out in."
Council Member Michael Kubosh raised concerns during Wednesday’s meeting about data collection.
“Is this only for HPD’s use and no others?” Kubosh, who represents At-Large District 3, asked City Attorney Arturo Michel.
“That’s correct,” Michel said.
Michel also said he believes ALPR cameras are exempt from the red light camera ban passed by Houston voters.
“Officers still have to verify the NCIS hits prior to stopping a vehicle,” Council Member Abbie Kamin of District C said. “There has to be also a justified reason for any flagging of a suspect vehicle.”
Kamin said that information is also logged and audited for internal tracking and accountability. She added the data can only be kept for 30 days before being removed.