Public cameras return to the streets and (certain) businesses of Houston

Image credit: Jürgen Jester/Pixabay

Around 10 years ago, the topic of red light cameras was a hot one in Houston politics. Kevin covered the issue quite closely here at blogHOUSTON, and eventually the Kubosh brothers got together to push through a City of Houston charter amendment to ban red light cameras across the city. The Houston City Council, after the inevitable legal fight that occurred after the charter amendment vote, eventually voted to end the contract with the camera vendor, and Houstonians were seemingly free of cameras spying on them as they went about their business. Other towns and cities across Texas also voted to end right light camera ticketing, and eventually Texas house bill 1631, which bans red light cameras across Texas, was signed by Governor Greg Abbott in 2019.

A victory for freedom! So far so good. However, the other day, Houston council member Ed Pollard posted this on his Facebook page:

Earlier this year, I had a vision to install 100 License Plate Reader (LPR) cameras all over #DistrictJ. The LPR’s will be strategically placed on high traffic streets and intersections and take a still photo of every single car that passes by and capture the license plate. If the car has been reported to be involved in a crime, an alert will be immediately sent to Houston Police Department to begin an investigation. The LPR’s will even be able to detect fake license plates.

The cameras use Flock Safety software and will not live stream or record, only take still photos and save for 30 days. The LPR cameras will also be able to capture the make, model, and any unique features of a vehicle to help identify the vehicle.

Many crimes are committed in stolen cars and it has been very difficult to investigate these incidents because there is not enough surveillance and footage to produce the necessary evidence to prosecute. These LPR’s should assist with this issue and help solve more crimes like car-jackings that have plagued our community….

CM Pollard’s remarks about installing license plate reader cameras to track vehicle movements come hard on the heels of another news story that one hundred neighborhoods around Houston have installed such cameras.

But wait, Boys and Girls! How about more cameras?

As though having license plate readers popping up all over Houston weren’t enough, the Houston city council passed an ordinance some weeks ago requiring bars, nightclubs, strip clubs, convenience stores and game rooms to install outward facing, high resolution cameras, or face citation penalties of up to $500 if they do not turn over video footage to the Houston police department within a period of 72 hours.

The passage of this ordinance might not go entirely unchallenged. Attorneys from both the left and right side of the fence have voiced opposition to the new ordinance. The ACLU has called the mandatory camera ordinance unconstitutional, saying that warrants should be required before getting camera footage and calling it part of a city-wide surveillance state. The ACLU went on to say that without warrant requirements, Houston police could simply demand video footage “as part of fishing expeditions.” From the right/libertarian view, activist attorney Eric Dick has also called the ordinance unconstitutional, citing equal protection of the law concerns that only certain businesses are required to install the cameras. The Institute for Justice also put out a presser, with an argument that the new ordinance runs afoul of Fourth Amendment protections that sounds similar to the complaints lodged by the ACLU. It remains to be seen whether legal action will be taken to challenge the ordinance.

As for politics of the ordinance, when the vote came up at the city council table, the ordinance passed 15-1, with former CoH police officer Mike Knox being the sole councilmember to vote against the ordinance. It’s interesting to see that Knox, who ran as a kind of law and order stalwart, voted against the ordinance, not to mention that he had enough wit around him to cite constitutional concerns about the ordinance.

As for the politics of these cameras, I am worried that it will be very hard to roll back their installation. Just two years ago, America went through the rioting and looting that occurred after the death of George Floyd. Subsequently, the political Left took over the courthouses, instituted low or no bond policies for defendants, started routinely releasing repeat offenders, and made widespread demands to defund the police. A massive and well documented crime wave has swept Houston (and America) since then, no doubt making many people clamor for safety. As always, it’s easy to take measures to augment the security and surveillance state under such conditions, and that has now happened. It’s notable that the Houston city charter has a provision to force an ordinance to be put to a public vote, but the petition signatures to force a public vote on a new ordinance have to be turned in within 30 days after an ordinance passes, and no such petition drive materialized. Furthermore, many people seem to have taken an attitude that people everywhere have cell phones and post like crazy on social media. Hence, why worry about tilting away at the windmills about rights to privacy when millions of people willingly post lots of stuff about themselves online anyway?

Failing a political outcry, it looks as though the growth of camera surveillance in Houston will have to be challenged mainly by legal action, and quite frankly that’s going to be a cr**shoot. Also, there is no state law otherwise prohibiting neighborhoods from implementing surveillance cameras. I still think we’re a ways away from turning into another United Kingdom or China when it comes to implementing a mass surveillance state, but we are headed that way in a bit-by-bit, fragmented way.

Buckle up.


  1. I don’t understand what good the cameras will do with courts low bounding and emptying the prisons. Anyone caught would be free in no time at all. We haven’t had a reduction in evidence but a reduction in prosecution and holding criminals accountable. Once again it’s more infringement on the law abiding rather then a crackdown on the law breakers. Just my thoughts.

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