Privacy a concern in plan to expand Sugar Land’s crime prevention camera program

By Betsy Dolan

Privacy tops the list of concerns for residents as the City of Sugar Land considers a plan to expand its crime prevention camera program.

The $1.6 million plan calls for 80 License Plate Recognition (LPR) cameras to be installed along major thoroughfares north of Highway 90A. A second $1.3 million phase, includes areas south of Highway 90A the following year.

The cameras would capture license plate information from cars entering or leaving the city and could be used as an investigative tool to solve crimes, said Douglas Brinkley, Sugar Land’s Chief of Police.

This fall, the Police Department conducted an online survey and held several community meetings to talk about the LPR program and gage the public’s opinion.

Four primary concerns surfaced during the public information sessions: privacy, how long the police department would keep the data, who has access to the data and the cost of the program.

Brinkely told the City Council in a workshop on the issue January 2 that the cameras would be placed on public roadways and would only capture the outside of the vehicle not the driver or the occupants inside.

“This would be a passive system.  There would be no live monitoring unless extenuating circumstances existed,” Brinkley said.

The police department is also planning to meet with attorneys to discuss making LPR camera privacy rules part of a city ordinance.

In addition, a police department administrator would oversee all requests for LPR data and every data request would have to be accompanied by a case number to an active file.

One change was made to the initial proposal based on the information gathered at the community meetings.  The police department would keep the data for 30 days instead of the original 10 to coordinate with the length of the city’s vacation house watch program, Brinkley said.

City Councilwoman, Amy Mitchell, asked for information about the effectiveness of the existing LPR cameras at the mall.  Brinkley said the way the LPR cameras work at the mall isn’t representative of how they will work citywide.

“The majority of crimes at the mall are thefts and either mall security catches them or they leave before we can get there and there are no witnesses to provide a vehicle description,” Brinkley said.  “In Beat 1 where we have a lot of residential burglaries, we’d put cameras around the entire geographic area so that if something happened we’d be able to capture the license plate coming and going.”

Residential burglaries in Sugar Land increased in 2012 and Brinkley says he estimates that 15-20 percent involved a vehicle description.

Sugar Land currently has three LPR cameras at the First Colony Mall and Town Center area and five mobile systems on police vehicles.

In November, data obtained from an LPR camera at the First Colony Mall was used to arrest two women accused in a robbery and assault in the parking lot of an area Target store.

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