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Border camera program blasted as waste
February 4, 2009

State Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, said the cameras “pander to the most right-wing members of his constituency.” Legislators in 2007 panned Perry's plans to continue the program, but Perry last year dedicated state-administered federal grant money for the cameras, and enlisted the sheriffs to see the program through. The sheriffs contracted with Blueservo.net, a social networking site, to set up the Web site, and hoped it eventually would draw advertising revenue to pay for more cameras.

Written by Lynn Brezosky, The San Antonio Express-News

EDINBURG — A $2 million surveillance program for the border that uses remote cameras and citizens armed with computers has been called a flop in its six-month status report after tips generated by the program led to only a trio of arrests.

Only 15 private landowners authorized cameras on their property; the goal was 100. The grant application said $25,000 in cash would be forfeited as a result of the camera watches. The actual amount was zero.

“It's not cost effective,” said state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, chairman of the Texas Senate Hispanic Caucus. “It's a waste of money and resources. We can make better the use of that money by helping pay for overtime for deputies along the border and get better communication equipment for law enforcement along the border.”

Armed with a laptop and a clipboard, 54-year-old truck driver Robert Fehrenkamp has become a “virtual deputy” in Texas' war against border drug smuggling that Gov. Rick Perry envisioned in 2006 when he announced plans to open border surveillance to anyone with a computer.

From his kitchen table — or anywhere else his air card catches a signal — Fehrenkamp spends hours monitoring remote cameras and e-mailing suspicious activity to sheriff's departments and the U.S. Border Patrol.

The program, which is run by the Texas Border Sheriff's Coalition and received $2 million in federal criminal justice grant funds to get under way, produced one big tip that led to three arrests and a 540-pound marijuana seizure — far short of the coalition's stated goal of 1,200 arrests and 500 seizures.

But Donald Reay, a retired Customs Service special agent who serves as director of the 20-sheriff coalition, stands by the program and said the data are misleading.

“We had to buy camera equipment; we had to obtain permits from landowners, we had to evaluate sites and of course coordinate with local law enforcement,” he said. “We went active Nov. 20 and the report was due Dec. 16. That's really only three weeks of operational data.”

Reay said he was shocked at what he said were unattainable goals, even with another six months in the year to go and more than half the grant money yet to be spent.

“I didn't set those goals, and frankly, some of those numbers are impossible to achieve,” he said. “But if someone has to be blamed, then hold me responsible. I have been asked to rewrite those objectives from our standpoint to make them more realistic.”

What the report doesn't reflect, he said, is that nearly 14 million people had logged on to the Web site as of Jan. 26, with 32 percent of the viewers from outside Texas.

Since the report was released to media, there's been a surge in Web hits, indicating the program benefits from even bad publicity. More than 35,000 people have signed on to www.blueservo.net to be virtual deputies, he said.

The deputies are spread fairly evenly in terms of age range, though they're predominantly male.

Watchers have e-mailed from Nebraska, Ohio, Florida, Hawaii and other states. One e-mail came from viewers in Australia saying they were “sitting in a pub, watching your border,” Reay said. What the data don't show are how many crimes may be prevented, Reay said, just by having more eyes on the border.

“When we have increased the number of people watching the border and they're watching it for an increased amount of time, than it's helping,” he said. “

Gov. Perry first announced the border Web cam program in 2006, saying he was dedicating $5 million toward what he called an expanded neighborhood watch.

He said he was prompted by reports of drug smugglers crossing the border in military clothing and by the federal government's failure to control the border despite reports of terrorist incursions.

A one-month, $200,000 test of the plan using 21 donated cameras resulted in 28 million hits and 2,780 reports of suspicious activity but was largely derided as a silly idea and a waste of money.

The Mexican American Legal Defense Fund said it would encourage vigilantism and racial profiling.

State Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, said the cameras “pander to the most right-wing members of his constituency.”

Legislators in 2007 panned Perry's plans to continue the program, but Perry last year dedicated state-administered federal grant money for the cameras, and enlisted the sheriffs to see the program through.

The sheriffs contracted with Blueservo.net, a social networking site, to set up the Web site, and hoped it eventually would draw advertising revenue to pay for more cameras.

Perry spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger said the governor “still believes this a great program.”

“Those standards need to be reconciled with the strategy,” she said. “The effectiveness is deterrence. It's preventing and deterring crime in the first place.

“It's an extra set of surveillance that may not have been there,” she said. “It's a long-term investment that's aimed at securing the border and protecting our Texas communities and essentially the nation.”

Fehrenkamp, the Edinburg truck driver, said participants like him feel they're helping keep the nation safe.

He demonstrated how he peered at different images on the Web site with a practiced eye, able to determine people from deer or even bears and make out suspicious vehicles moving in the periphery of his computer screen. He said he'd made several reports but wouldn't know what if any enforcement activity the reports led to.

“There's a lot of people who would love to be in law enforcement but for whatever reason were unable to do so,” he said. “This kind of allows them to feel like they're doing something.”

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