IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Houston Police Lean on Plate Scanners Amid Staff Shortage

As Houston public safety leaders continue to decry staffing shortages, the police department has come to rely on license plate scanning technology more than any other city in the country, an official said.

(TNS) — As Houston public safety leaders continue to decry what they say are staffing shortages, the police department has come to rely on a license plate scanning technology more than any other city in the country, the acting chief said at a recent hearing.

Houston now leads the nation with more than 3,800 license plate reading cameras, acting Police Chief Larry Satterwhite said at a hearing on the department's budget for 2025. And the technology is showing promise in helping investigators close cases.

"It's been tremendously helpful," he said.

The cameras track license plates on vehicles and notify law enforcement of any past links to crimes. While law enforcement experts in Houston and elsewhere have praised the technology for helping investigators solve crimes faster and more efficiently, it doesn't come without controversy, as some civil rights groups have voiced concern about how the technology stores data and intrudes on peoples' privacy.

Law enforcement experts across Harris County praised the promise of the Flock Safety cameras, saying they make a difference in solving crimes. The cameras have helped investigators solve some high-profile shootings across the Houston area in recent months, including the shooting of rapper BTB Savage.

"The days of chasing criminals the old-fashioned way is over, we're not on horses anymore," Lt. Mike Santos, a sheriff's deputy, said in an interview after the East Aldine Management District announced plans to spend $1 million on 60 of the cameras. "If we can use technology to our benefit, then let's do that."

Not all technology is useful, and determining what works and doesn't will take trial and error, said Charles Blain, president of the Urban Reform Institute, a right-of-center organization dedicated to free market solutions for urban issues. He gave credit to Mayor John Whitmire for conceding that the city's ShotSpotter program, which involves gunshot detection technology, hadn't been effective, saying the focus with new technology should be small-scale trials and a willingness to deeply evaluate its effectiveness.

"We're always looking for smarter, better, cost-effective ways of fighting crime," Whitmire said. "What we really need are things we know will work."

Blain added that the other chief concern as technology becomes a bigger part of law enforcement must be on civil rights and liberties.

"How we are going to protect individual civil rights needs to be paramount," he said. "Whether we get more cops or not, I think you're going to see a shift to a more technological model. And city and state leaders need to be on the forefront of how we put structures in place to protect people."

Facial recognition software, for instance, has come under controversy for misidentifying minorities in some widely publicized cases, Blain said.

And Savannah Kumar, attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, previously told the Houston Chronicle that the license plate reading cameras raise privacy concerns. Kumar urges people to be cautious with the implementation or expansion of plate reading systems and to consider how long the data is retained and where it's shared by law enforcement.

Filling in the gaps

Police department leaders for months have said they want 2,000 more sworn officers to improve response times and increase their investigative capacity. Satterwhite told members of the city's budget committee that the department was 300 officers shorter than it was 25 years ago — a drop from nearly 5,500 officers in 1998 to fewer than 5,200 last month.

The department's civilian staff has also been halved in the same time frame, from 1,900 in 1998 to 878 today.

More than 90% of the police department's proposed budget is set aside for staffing, with only around 9% for everything else, according to documents.

A representative for the company behind the Flock cameras confirmed Thursday that Texas was a top 3 market for the technology.

Blain said he thinks Houston's public safety issues weren't unique and that he thinks law enforcement agencies need to increasingly look to technology moving forward.

"I understand the desire to hire more cops and put bodies on the ground," he said. "But you look across the country, in every city this is happening — from San Francisco to Raleigh, N.C. They're all facing staffing struggles. And, at some point, I think they need to come to a realization that the way they used to do policing and the way people viewed entering the service of public safety is changing. I don't know that we're getting back to a place where you have nonstop full cadet classes. I think they need to begin looking to technology, and increasingly so."

© 2024 the Houston Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.