The Texas Border Watch Program — the web-based border camera surveillance project Gov. Rick Perry launched in 2006 — is meeting its goals for the first time since its inception. But that's only because the targets have been scaled back so dramatically that the program hardly resembles the wide-reaching virtual border neighborhood watch Perry initially promised.
During his 2006 re-election campaign, Perry promised to launch a virtual neighborhood-watch program on the border, allowing internet viewers to troll for illegal crossers. He said he would spend $5 million and line the border with "hundreds" of cameras. Lawmakers didn't go for the idea, refusing to fund the cameras with state dollars. But four years later, Perry has invested a total of $4 million of federal grant money that he controls in the Texas Border Watch Program. Twenty-nine cameras have been installed on the 1,200-mile Texas-Mexico border, or one camera for every 41 miles of border. Internet viewers have helped police make a total of 26 arrests — that’s about $153,800 per arrest. And some border law agencies are not even using the cameras for police work.
Perry first gave the Texas Border Sheriff's Coalition $2 million in 2008 to launch the border camera program. Progress reports from that year showed the program fell far short of nearly all its law enforcement goals, including arrests, cash forfeitures and immigration apprehensions. Only a fraction of the cameras Perry initially wanted had been installed, and the program had generated none of the self-sustaining advertising revenue called for in the camera contract.
In 2008, the cameras were expected to generate 1,200 arrests, $25,000 in cash forfeitures, 50,000 incident reports and 4,500 immigration referrals. Under the grant objectives, the coalition was supposed to install 200 cameras. Instead, that year 13 cameras generated three arrests, zero cash forfeitures, eight incident reports and six immigration referrals.
Still, Perry gave the coalition another $2 million to keep the cameras rolling in 2009. According to the most recent six-month progress report obtained under Texas open records laws, the camera program finally achieved its objectives in the last half of 2009. But the objectives, set out by Perry's Criminal Justice Division, were drastically reduced.
Instead of 15 different objectives, the camera program now has five. Only two of them are law-enforcement related. Gone are the goals for arrests, money seizures or immigration referrals. Katherine Cesinger, a spokeswoman for Perry, said the goals were changed to “reflect the metrics that can be directly linked to the utility of the border cameras.”
The new objectives include the number of cameras installed, the number of landowners who allow cameras on their property and sightings reported to local law enforcement. Even those goals are minimal: 17 cameras, 17 property owners and 230 sightings. The coalition met or exceeded all but two of the new, smaller goals. They have installed a total of 29 cameras now, said Don Reay, executive director of the coalition. At least 19 landowners have agreed to allow cameras on their property, and the six-month report showed 318 sightings from the cameras were reported to law enforcement.
Reay said the new goals better reflect the reality of the program. The coalition, he said, should not be responsible for gathering data about arrests, apprehensions and seizures from the various agencies that respond to calls from camera watchers. And, he said, Perry’s goal of 200 cameras on the border was not feasible. “That was a misstatement,” Reay said. “We knew we could never put up 200 of these cameras.” When it comes to the advertising dollars that were supposed to be generated from the site, Reay granted that was the one aspect of the program that remains a failure. “I wished we had it,” he said. “I wished it was self-sustaining, but the bottom line is we don’t have it.”
Perry still contends the camera program has been a success. “As we have discussed time and again, the Virtual Border Watch program continues to serve as an efficient tool that augments and amplifies the ability of law enforcement to monitor, detect, prevent and deter criminal activity along the border by utilizing advanced technology and the public interest in this program,” Cesinger wrote in an e-mail.
The cameras, Cesinger said, are meant to supplement the $200 million Perry and state lawmakers have spent on border operations since 2006 for additional law enforcement and equipment for state and local police. “This program is just one of many tools the state is using to secure a border that our federal government has neglected to do, and without this technology, we would be at a disadvantage,” she wrote.
It’s unclear, though, which law enforcement agencies are gaining an advantage from the camera technology. Coalition director Reay said Border Patrol agents told him they are happy with the cameras. But, he said, the cameras aren’t used much in the El Paso Sector, which is mostly in New Mexico. When contacted about the cameras, Marfa Border Patrol Sector spokesman Bill Brooks said he wasn’t sure whether agents in that region, which includes the Big Bend area, had access to the camera footage. “We really don’t have anything to do with the Texas watch system or whatever we call that. I’m not sure why you were referred to us,” he said. “I have no idea where they’re even located.” Over in the Del Rio Sector, just to the east of the Marfa Sector, spokesman Dennis Smith referred a request for comment to Border Patrol headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Not even all of the 20 sheriffs in the coalition use the cameras. Lt. Larry Guerra in El Paso County, directly across from the violence stricken city of Juárez, said there aren’t any cameras there. Sheriff Lupe Treviño in Hidalgo County and Sheriff Omar Lucio in Cameron County said they told the coalition they wanted nothing to do with the project. Treviño, whose county is adjacent to the frequent shootouts in Reynosa, Mexico, said his department wouldn’t have the manpower to respond to potentially hundreds of calls from border web watchers. “I wouldn’t have time to do anything else,” he said. Plus, Treviño said, he wouldn’t trust the reports of untrained observers watching from their computers hundreds of miles away.
Lucio, whose county borders the recent murders, kidnappings, shootouts and a jailbreak in Matamoros, Mexico, said he worried the web watchers would send his deputies on wild goose chases. Even if they did report crimes, Lucio said, by the time his deputies got the information, the perpetrators would be long gone. He has seen smugglers load 1,000 pounds of marijuana into a station wagon and take off within 29 seconds. “Tell me, tell me, what is a camera going to do?” he asked. “I never thought it would work, and I don’t believe it will work.”
Lucio scoffed at results the coalition reported from the camera program — 26 arrests and the seizure of about 7,400 pounds of narcotics in two years. “I arrest more than that in a month,” he said. The camera money, he said, could be better spent on patrol officers and equipment. “On a yearly basis here, I confiscate six to seven tons [of narcotics]. I don’t need the cameras. I just need the manpower.”
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