Public Surveillance Works for Bryan, Texas

Before retiring earlier this year, I worked with the Bryan, Texas police department. When I joined the force in 2007 as chief of police, I knew that the most powerful ally in my job as chief would be the people of Bryan. I came from the police department in Fairfax, Va., where I was a major and the director of the Fairfax County Criminal Justice Academy.

I knew if we were going to accomplish everything we needed to in Bryan that we would need buy-in from everyone; so, I took my case to the public and I visited and talked with every group I could. I spoke with dozens of community, business and professional groups. With each group I would ask the same three questions: “What are we doing right?” “How can we improve?” and “What would you do first if you were the chief of police?”

My job was to listen. Of course, there were lots of different responses, but the sentiment and theme all boiled down to one thing — making Bryan safe. The people of Bryan wanted a community where they could live, work and relax while feeling safe and secure. After listening and talking with hundreds of people, I knew we were all working toward the same goal and I knew that goal was to work towards making Bryan the safest city in Texas. In fact, that became our theme. It wasn’t just the chief of police or the mayor saying it. It was business owners, homeowners, professionals, teachers and students. It was a goal that everyone embraced.

Cleaning up the City with Surveillance Technology
Bryan is a small southeastern Texas town of about 70,000 (the 2000 U.S. Census puts the population at a little more than 65,000). The town was first formally incorporated in 1872 and rapidly developed from a small village to the Brazos County seat. Its growth was helped by the city’s proximity to College Station and Texas A&M University, which is only four miles outside of Bryan.
At some point, the once-active downtown began to lose some of its luster. Local shops closed their doors, businesses began to leave and shoppers and tourists headed for other destinations. Bryan residents and businesses disappeared from downtown and were replaced by panhandlers and vagrants. The people wanted their community back. Once we all knew we were working toward the same goal, we had to decide how to get there.

My background with the Fairfax Police Department included assisting in investigating the Belt Way Sniper attacks. During a three-week period in October 2002, 11 people were shot and killed and three were critically injured by a sniper in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area and along Interstate 95 in Virginia. Cameras, gunshot recognition software and other advanced technologies were used to eventually track down the two shooters responsible. That experience, combined with the background of Peter Scheets, my deputy chief in Bryan, who was a military intelligence officer in the U.S. Army — made technology an obvious choice.

In 2000, the city of Bryan began a $44 million program to revitalize the downtown business district. The revitalization is an ongoing process and is currently in its third phase. Phase I and II focused on Main St. and Bryan Ave., in the southern portion of the downtown area. Part of the initial investment included the installation of a fiber optic backbone and that enabled the police to install a temporary camera system to evaluate the technology.

We decided to test the cameras during the annual Texas Reds Festival, a steak and wine event featuring entertainment, craft and food booths and lots of activity. In the past, the festival has attracted a lot of people, including vagrants, panhandlers and car thieves. The police monitored the cameras and found them to be effective, so we decided to move forward with a permanent camera system.

We partnered with ADT Security Services working with Sam Sutherland, regional manager, state/local government group, out of the Carrollton, Texas office. The ADT team worked with us on the selection and placement of a phased camera system for the city, starting with the downtown area.

Convincing Citizens
Now we had to go back to the public and get buy-in for the cameras and money to implement the system. The ground work I had done by going to each group and asking for input paid off. I was able to go back to the chamber of commerce, mayor and city council and show them that the temporary cameras had worked and to remind them that we had all bought into the same vision of security for the city.

Naturally, there was some pushback, as the idea of cameras watching people initially made some citizens uneasy. We were asked what the cameras would be monitoring and how long we would keep the recordings. We were able to answer each question and assure the community that for the most part the cameras would not be monitored live, except during special events such as the Texas Reds Festival.

We would use the recorded images only to review events after the fact — for forensics and prosecution. The business community embraced the idea of something that could help them secure their businesses and help make people feel safer, so that residents would feel good about shopping and doing business in the downtown area.

Next, deputy chief Scheets worked on finding funding for the camera system. He identified some seizure funds we had collected from the sale of property from convicted felons. I have to say there is a certain justice in using funds from criminals to stop crime. We also applied for and received Justice Assistance Grants (JAG).

With buy-in from the community and our stimulus and grant funds in hand, we were able to move forward with the first phase of our system. Our downtown is three blocks wide and 12 blocks long, so we decided to place six cameras on a hotel, which is one of the tallest buildings in town. Four of the cameras are fixed and the other two are pan/tilt/zoom. These cameras can zoom in to read license plates or even small state inspection stickers that are only 2x4 inches in size.

The cameras use wireless mesh technology and record at all times, with the images being transmitted to the Bryan police station.
One of the specifications we had for the system was to be able to tap into the existing cameras in the Bryan Independent School District. If there is an incident in one of the schools, police can look at the cameras to access the situation.

Crime Goes Down
The new camera system has already proven to be a valuable tool. Police have noticed a marked decline in both violent and property crimes in the downtown area, as the cameras have acted as a powerful deterrent. Graffiti vandals recently tagged Bryant’s historic downtown Queen Theatre, Masonic Hall and Carnegie Library. Cameras caught the action and police were able to read the license plate of one of the vandals’ cars.

The cameras have been a force multiplier for the department of 131 officers. The cameras add many more eyes, and Scheets notes that officers can be much more efficient. Time once spent patrolling downtown can be used to watch other areas of the city.

Expansion Plans
Recently the police department added an additional four cameras to cover “hot spots” on the northern side of downtown. Plans for the next phases include more cameras using a mixture of wireless and fiber optic technologies, along with gunshot detection software and facial recognition analytics.

To fund that expansion, the city will be looking for other grants. In doing so, it will be able to point to the success of the current system and the adoption of the common vision of the city’s citizens, business owners and politicians.

Still, if I had to point to one thing that made this all a success, it would be taking the time to talk with everyone in the community and listening to their concerns, hopes and dreams — then putting those thoughts into a single vision and goal that everyone can embrace.

Tyrone (Ty) Morrow served as the chief of police for Bryan, Texas from 2007 until he retired earlier this year. During that time, he oversaw the installation of a wireless public safety camera system in downtown Bryan. Morrow’s next venture is to head to the Middle East to help train police officers in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates.