Virtual border surveillance program ineffective, cost millions
January 26, 2009

Border sheriffs, who Perry gave $2 million to line the Texas-Mexico border with hundreds of Web cameras, installed only about a dozen and made just a handful of apprehensions as a result of tips from online viewers.

Written by Brandi Grissom, The El Paso Times

AUSTIN -- A virtual border surveillance program Gov. Rick Perry has committed millions of taxpayer dollars to fell far short of expectations during the first six months of operation.

Border sheriffs, who Perry gave $2 million to line the Texas-Mexico border with hundreds of Web cameras, installed only about a dozen and made just a handful of apprehensions as a result of tips from online viewers.

Reports obtained by the El Paso Times under the Texas Public Information Act show that the cameras produced a fraction of the objectives Perry outlined.

Perry's office acknowledged the reported results were a far from the expectations but said the problem was with the yardstick used to measure the outcome and not with the camera program.

"The progress reports need to be adjusted to come in line with the strategy," said Perry spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger.

Perry and the Texas Border Sheriffs Coalition defended the Web cameras and argued it's too soon to judge their effectiveness.

"We realize some people will criticize us; it doesn't matter what we do," said Don Reay, executive director of the sheriffs coalition.

But critics say the numbers prove the camera project is a failure that is more about shoring up Perry's conservative base than about keeping border communities safe.

"I think it's a waste of time and it's a waste of money," said state Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen. "It doesn't work."

Perry awarded the Border Sheriffs Coalition $2 million in federal grant money last summer to get the Web camera program going after his own repeated attempts proved fruitless.

In the first six months of the grant period, the coalition spent $625,000 to get the cameras running.

The Web site went public Nov. 19, and in the first month saw nearly 2 million hits.

All those hits didn't translate into much law enforcement work, though, according to a six-month progress report required for the grant.

The report describes both the objectives for the program during the first year of the grant and how much progress was made in achieving those goals.

The coalition's goal was to make 1,200 arrests as a result of tips from the online cameras in the first year of the project.

They made three arrests in the first six months, according to the progress report.

Of some 4,500 suspected immigration violations they expected to report to U.S. Border Patrol in the year, the first six months produced six.

The report also showed the group installed just 13 of 200 cameras it planned to install this year.

Initially contacted about the report, Perry spokeswoman Cesinger expressed surprise at the discrepancy between the programs' objectives and achievements.

After consulting with other Perry staff, she thanked the El Paso Times for bringing the discrepancies in the report to their attention.

The objectives, which Perry's staff originally set, she said, were flawed.

The point of the cameras, Cesinger said, is not to help police and Border Patrol make arrests or apprehensions but to deter criminals from breaking the law in the first place.

But Cesinger admitted that how much crime the cameras deter is a factor that cannot be measured.

"I'm not sure what they're adjusting (the objectives) to, but this is definitely something we're thankful you brought to our attention," she said.

Asked how taxpayers could judge whether the cameras were worth the $2 million Perry is spending, Cesinger said only that taxpayers would "get" the concept of deterrence.

"They're smart and they understand," she said.

Border sheriffs coalition executive director Reay also said the camera program would be dramatically scaled back from its initial conception as a virtual border wall of cameras along the border.

The plan originally called for 200 cameras, the equivalent of one camera for every six miles of the Texas-Mexico border.

Now, Reay said, they will likely install about 15 cameras for public viewing, the equivalent of one camera every 80 miles.

Reay acknowledged numbers in the report don't look good, but he said two things account for the discrepancy between the objectives for the camera program and the actual results.

First, he agreed with Perry's staff that the goals were probably off.

"We think they might have been a little bit high as we're evaluating," Reay said.

Second, the Web site launch was delayed until the last month of the reporting period. There were holdups in getting the funds, installing the technology and getting permission to put up the cameras, Reay said.

"It's not something where you can say, 'I have the money today. I can go install cameras tomorrow,'" he explained.

Given more time and more viewers, Reay said, he expected the results to grow, though probably not to the levels described in the original objectives.

Not 1st camera rodeo

The camera project is one Perry has been struggling to get off the ground since he announced in June 2006 he would spend $5 million to line the Texas border with hundreds of cameras and stream the video feed live on the Web. Anyone, anywhere with an Internet connection could troll the border for scofflaws, he promised.

"By leveraging advanced video technology and the power of the World Wide Web, and with an increased financial commitment from the state of Texas, we can make our border stronger and our nation safer," Perry said just before the 2006 state Republican Party convention as a national debate over illegal immigration raged.

After several starts and stops, Perry launched a $200,000 monthlong test with 21 cameras in November 2006.

An El Paso Times review of documents from the test showed despite 28 million hits on the test Web site, the cameras helped border law enforcement apprehend only 10 undocumented immigrants, make one drug bust and interrupt one smuggling route.

Some lawmakers panned the program as ineffective, and in 2007 legislators denied Perry's request to fund more cameras and resume the online offensive.

Last year, though, Perry secured $2 million in federal grant money to get the cameras online.

But when his office sought a vendor, none would do the job for that price.

So Perry turned to the border sheriffs, a group he had previously given tens of millions for border security operations.

The sheriffs contracted with a social-networking company called Blueservo to set up the cameras and the Web site.

Once enough users sign up, the company says it plans to sell advertising on the site to generate a profit and pay for the border camera effort.

Cesinger said Perry is committed to the camera program because it uses technology to help secure the border, a mission the federal government has failed to accomplish.

"It's utilizing technology so you don't have to pay for an extra set of eyes," she said.

A dangerous waste

Civil rights advocates and state lawmakers were appalled at the paltry results the cameras produced for the $2 million investment.

"I don't see the virtue of spending $2 million on this program that's supposed to arrest criminals along the border," said state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio. "That's not a good return on our investment."

Lawmakers said Perry should spend the money to address more serious problems, like stopping gunrunners who supply Mexican cartels with U.S.-made weapons they use to slaughter thousands in the ongoing drug war.

State Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, called the cameras another in a string of thinly veiled attacks Perry has launched on immigrants and Hispanics to satisfy conservative Republican voters.

"Virtual immigrant hunts will earn Perry backlash at the polls," he said.

One person, though, was not surprised by the lackluster performance of the border cameras: Scott Stewart, senior terrorism and security analyst at Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence company.

As a surveillance tool, he said, cameras are most useful after the commission of a crime in identifying perpetrators.

Cameras, he said, are not as effective at deterring or stopping crime, especially when there are just 13 of them along a 1,200-mile stretch of the border.

"It would be wonderful if it would work, but I just remain skeptical," Stewart said. "We have a tendency to almost put too much stock in technology to provide security, and so sometimes that technology can provide us with a false sense of security."

Border cameras by the numbers:

Total one-year grant: $2 million
Amount spent in first six months $625,000
Number of hits on the border camera Web site,, Nov. 19-Dec. 17: 1,894,288
Number of cameras installed:
1-year objective: 200
6-month actual results: 13
Number of arrests:
1-year objective: 1,200
6-month actual results: 3
Number of drug seizures:
1-year objective: 500
6-month actual results: 1
Dollar amount of funds forfeited:
1-year objective: $25,000
6-month actual results: 0
Number of incidents reported to law enforcement:
1-year objective: 50,000
6-month actual results: 8
Number of referrals to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol
1-year objective: 4,500
6-month actual results: 6
Source: Six-month progress report by the Texas Border Sheriffs Coalition obtained under Texas Public Information Act.

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