ALEXIS GRANT, Staff
Facing a shortage of police officers, Police Chief Harold Hurtt called Wednesday for a new type of patrol: surveillance cameras on downtown streets, apartment complexes and shopping malls – and in extreme situations, private homes.
«If you’re not doing anything wrong, why should you worry about it?» Hurtt told reporters.
His remarks came as the City Council approved a financial-incentive program to help the Houston Police Department recruit officers.
The department is struggling with a manpower shortage as well as a spike in violent crime. To supplement officers on patrol, HPD is considering installing five video cameras downtown, Hurtt said. He also suggested that new apartment complexes and malls be required, as part of the building-permit process, to provide security cameras.
And when asked whether the need for cameras extends to private homes, he said, «If they’re putting a burden on the criminal justice system and cheating the other residents of Houston, yes.»
He did not elaborate on how police would accomplish such surveillance or when it would be appropriate.
Source of funds
The downtown-camera project already has a group to fund it: the Houston Downtown Management District. Once the cameras are installed, the project would be carried out by HPD. Officers would monitor video feeds from a new storefront office planned for downtown.
«It’s going to be a lot less expensive than having officers standing in those locations or responding to all those calls,» said Hurtt, who wants to have the cameras up by the end of this year. «What we need is a combination of technology and human resources to deal with this issue.»
The Downtown Management District, which works to improve the central business district using taxes paid by downtown property owners, has proposed five sites for cameras at intersections on and around Main. They are high-pedestrian-traffic, not high-crime, locations, said Bob Eury, executive director of the district.
Mayor must approve
«The goal is for people to feel safe,» said Eury, who compared the cameras to those at shopping malls. «We’re finding new ways to make it basically safer in reality and perception.»
The program would cost tens of thousands of dollars, Eury said, declining to estimate more precisely since the project will be put out for bids.
The emphasis on new police and surveillance is part of the city’s response to a recent spike in violent crime.
It was up 2.3 percent through November 2005, compared with the same period in 2004, though the overall crime rate was down 2.2 percent.
Mayor Bill White, who must approve the camera program for it to go into effect, said he had not yet discussed it with Hurtt.
«There’s a legitimate right to privacy,» White said. «On the other hand … if there are some crime hot spots, then we want something where we don’t have to have uniformed officers staring at a particular spot 24 hours a day.»
The City Council’s Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security will consider the program Feb. 28.
Some privacy concerns
Some privacy advocates questioned whether apartment owners should be required to install cameras.
«It’s radical and unheard-of,» said Scott Henson, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Texas Police Accountability Project.
But on city streets, it’s a different story. Cities across the country, including Chicago, Los Angeles and Minneapolis, already use surveillance cameras in public places. In London, where cameras are commonplace, the technology helped police solve last year’s transit bombings.
Technology isn’t the only tool HPD is using to fight crime. The understaffed department hopes to entice experienced officers nationwide to work in Houston by offering a $7,000 bonus and increased pay under a program approved Wednesday by City Council. By hiring 700 new officers every year for the next three years, Houston would have 2.8 officers for every 1,000 people, the national average, instead of the current 2.2 per 1,000 people, Hurtt said.
Under the incentive program, HPD officers who have less than five years’ experience will also get a pay raise.
ALEXIS GRANT, Staff