West University Place rolls out virtual gate camera system

HOUSTON, Texas -- During the week of June 8-12, contractors hired by the city of West University Place began installing cameras needed to test a trial run for a new camera system that will monitor entrances into the city to alert police of cars registered to those with criminal records as well as suspicious activity in the area.

Both license plate-reading cameras and surveillance cameras are included in the system, which will be placed in strategic locations at all entrances into the city, according to the city's website.

Cameras part of the Virtual Gate system have been installed at two locations thus far: at Bissonnet Street and Buffalo Speedway and at West Holcombe Boulevard and Brompton Road, said Ken Walker, the chief of the West University Place Police Department.

"It's taken a lot of time," he said.

The expertise required is one of the reasons the project has been pushed back beyond the original timeline, Walker said, where the first of two phases for the project was originally expected to be completed by this summer. The project was approved about a year ago.

As part of Phase 1, the city is in a trial period with the camera system for up to 90 days, during which its contractor, Minuteman Security Technologies, verifies and gets the system in place, said Dave Beach, West University Place's city manager. This includes installing infrastructure on the city's end so that it is able to collect data from the camera system.

"There's up to a 90-day period to show the system is working as intended," Beach said.

According to the revised timeline, once a proof of concept is shown and approved by City Council, the city of West University Place can move forward with the rest of the first phase, with hopes to have cameras installed at 15 locations throughout the city by the end of 2020.

The system will serve West University Place with license plate-reading cameras that will cover all lanes of traffic on certain roads and alert the police department of any vehicles that are stolen, associated with Amber or Silver alerts, or are registered to individuals with a record of violent crimes.

The system's touted boon to safety and security comes as a priority to the West University Place City Council, which while the previous council first approved the Virtual Gate concept, the current council has been unanimous in continuing the project forward, said Kevin Trautner, West University Place mayor pro tem.

"Even though the crime rate is relatively low, when crime does happen, it's very disruptive," Trautner said. "It improves quality of life and makes people comfortable in making the kind of investment it takes to live here."

The system is also able to send out alerts to police officers if registered sex offenders enter areas prohibited to them, domestic violence suspects enter areas of concern, or those who have made violent threats pass through the area, and they are able to provide a live feed for dispatchers.

"This is an added resource that helps police solve crimes and acts as a deterrent," Beach said.

The cost for the first phase is $2.34 million out of a total of $4.5 million for the two phases combined, paid for through a certificate of obligation bond to be paid back by the city over the next 15 years, though according to Beach, the project came in under budget.

Prior to beginning Phase 2, city staff will return to council with results from the first phase.

The second phase, should no hiccups occur in implementing the first phase, will install cameras at 25 additional locations, with a tentative completion date sometime before mid-2021, according to comments by Mayor Bob Higley on the city's website.