The city is installing 250 to 300 cameras at downtown intersections in an effort to prevent and fight terrorism and crime, part of a security initiative sponsored by the U.S. department of Homeland Security.
The cameras, which the city began installing in earnest this summer, already have helped police catch car burglars in the act, said Dennis Storemski, the city's director of the Office of Public Safety and Homeland Security. Eventually, he said, the cameras could be used to allow dispatchers or officers approaching a crime scene to survey what's happening from their patrol vehicles before they arrive.
"The intent is to protect critical infrastructure and prevent terrorism," he said. "Experience has shown that when people plan terroristic acts, they plan and they do dry runs, so what we would be looking for is suspicious activity around certain locations. And for any crimes, you can go back and look at the video and identify the perpetrators."
More than 50 cameras already have been installed around the George R. Brown Convention Center, Discovery Green Park, the theater district and Minute Maid Park. Every downtown intersection will be equipped with a camera. Eventually, Storemski said, the program may be expanded to include the Reliant Stadium complex, the Port of Houston, even some city parks where festivals frequently are held.
The footage can be monitored in real time by police and after the fact through a computer network built during the past three years.
The cameras will allow police to monitor any scene from several viewpoints at once rather than having to staff events with officers surveying the scene in binoculars, he said.
For some who passed by the northeast corner of Milam and Texas early Wednesday, where a crew installed one such surveillance device, the idea was alarming.
"I'm not in favor of it," said Mike Wells, who was walking to his office across the street.
The cost of operating the cameras, as well as their capability to invade privacy, was troubling, he said.
"That's big government watching our every move," he said.
Chris Goldsmith, who works downtown, said he was most concerned with the cost to taxpayers of installing and operating the cameras.
Public spaces not private
Privacy, he said, is not necessarily a concern because "in the public you've got no expectation of privacy."
Storemski sounded a similar note, saying that all the cameras are in public spaces where people should be aware that their actions are not private.
"We live in an age right now where there's really no expectation that there would be no video in a public space," he said. "Everybody that has a cell phone has a video camera. This happens all the time. We're just doing it for public safety purposes."
The city has spent about $14 million in federal grant funding on the camera program, which it expects to finish by the end of January. The money comes from Urban Area Security Initiative funds doled out annually by Homeland Security to regions across the country, Storemski said.
In recent years, Houston has received an estimated $18 million to $20 million, money to spend on initiatives to prevent and detect terrorism.
Other projects include funding an interoperable radio system and the video network that can sustain the cameras, make footage shot by private cameras accessible to police and even take footage from a helicopter and allow first responders to see it. The latter particularly has been useful for fighting fires, Storemski said.
ID'd subway bombers
Cameras in public spaces already have proven successful in major worldwide incidents, such as identifying suspects in the 2005 subway bombings in London, he said.
In Chicago, dispatchers already have access to cameras and can provide descriptions to police arriving at a scene.
Some Houstonians on Wednesday responded favorably to the camera program.
Julio Flores, a waiter at a downtown skyscraper, said he felt more comfortable knowing that surveillance camera footage could be used to solve crimes or to track suspects.
Judith Hanson, who was visiting downtown to watch her daughter's performance at the Wortham Center, said the cameras could provide comfort to women who come to the area.
"Just knowing that there is a camera just makes me feel a little bit safer," she said.