Gov. Rick “Slick Rick” Perry’s border Web camera program has run out of money, and in its first full year of operation failed to meet nearly every law enforcement goal.
Last year, Perry gave the Texas Border Sheriffs Coalition a $2 million federal grant to install cameras along the U.S.-Mexico border and broadcast the footage live over the Internet. An internal report showed that a fraction of the 200 cameras Perry wanted on the border were installed, and that Internet border patrollers produced a handful of drug busts and a scattering of arrests.
Experts on both sides of the immigration issue said the program was unsuccessful. Certain lawmakers have called it a waste.
“Instead of making Texas safer, it has made Texas the source of international ridicule,” said state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso.
Still, Perry is seeking another $2 million to prop up the project that was supposed to become self-sustaining.
After being shown a report that indicated the cameras fell far short of their goals, Perry’s staff produced a new, revised report that put the program in a more positive light.
The grant that financed the program has expired, and the sheriffs coalition says that without more funding, the cameras will go dark.
Original goals for the program were unrealistic, said sheriffs coalition executive director Don Reay. He said the cameras have been a success.
“We’re hoping there will be a new (grant) offered for next year,” he said.
In its first full year, the camera Web site drew more than 39 million hits and caught the attention of national and international media.
But interviews and reports the El Paso Times obtained indicate the nearly 125,000 “virtual Texas Barney Fife’s” registered on the site led law enforcement to just eight drug busts and 11 arrests.
Texas Border Watch went live online at www.blueservo.com in November, three months after the Texas Border Sheriffs Coalition signed a $2 million contract with the Internet social networking company BlueServo.
The sheriffs coalition last month submitted a year-end report that described the goals for the program and the results it achieved. Nearly 40 million people logged onto the site, according to the report, and 124,933 signed up as virtual deputies to watch footage from the border cameras.
Viewers watched from all over the world, including Switzerland, Australia and even Mexico. The report also showed that all those viewers did not find much illegal activity.
The sheriffs coalition was to install 200 cameras, but only 17 were up and running. That’s about one camera for every 70 miles of the 1,200-mile Texas-Mexico border.
The cameras were expected to generate 1,200 arrests. The sheriffs coalition reported 11.
Internet border watchers’ reports led to the referral of about 300 undocumented immigrants to U.S. Border Patrol officials. That was about 6 percent of the 4,500 referrals the program was expected to generate.
Reay explained the gap between the objectives and the results in this response on the report: “Original goals were not realistic. Problems encountered was an element of the press who did everything within their power to negate the problem (sic).”
One failure of the program, Reay said, was its inability to become self-sustaining.
BlueServo, the company that operates the cameras, was supposed to sell advertising on the Web site. Revenue from the advertising would then support the operation and eventually eliminate the need for public funds.
Reay said BlueServo had neither the time nor the staff to sell ads. The economic downturn didn’t help either.
“We did fail in that. It didn’t happen,” Reay said.
A final payment of more than $450,000 is scheduled to go to BlueServo this week, Reay said.
The total cost for operating the camera program in its first year, Reay said, was about $1.99 million.
For now, he said, the cameras are still broadcasting footage from the border. But without another grant, he said, the program will die.
Slick Rick Perry produces rosier report
After questions about results in the year-end report and whether funding would be renewed for the cameras, Perry spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger produced a different report.
The newly produced report showed objectives radically reduced from the original goals.
Instead of 200 cameras, it said the sheriffs coalition was expected to install only 15, making it appear as if the group exceeded its goals by installing 17 cameras.
The target number of arrests was revised downward from 1,200 to 25, much closer to the 11 arrests the sheriffs coalition actually made.
The original objectives, Cesinger said, were supposed to have been revised after a six-month progress report earlier this year showed the program was far from meeting its targets. There was some sort of “glitch” in the reporting process, she said.
Despite the small number of arrests, the few cameras installed and the failure of the program to become self-
sustaining, Cesinger said, Perry was convinced the program deterred crime and should be funded again.
“The bad guys know there are an extra pair eyes on the border,” she said.
A history of half assed performance
In his re-election campaign three years ago, Perry made border security a keystone of his platform. He promised then to spend $5 million to line the Texas-Mexico border with hundreds of cameras so that anyone, anywhere could troll for undocumented immigrants and drug traffickers trying to sneak into the United States.
Several starts and stops later, Perry launched a $200,000 month long border camera test in November 2006.
An El Paso Times review of documents from the test showed that, 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.
Lawmakers in 2007 panned the program as ineffective, and declined Perry’s request to fund more cameras and resume the online offensive.
Determined to see the program through, Perry secured $2 million in federal grant money to get the cameras online. When his office sought a vendor, none would do the job for that price.
So Perry turned to the Texas Border Sheriffs Coalition, a group he has given tens of millions of dollars for border-security operations.
The sheriffs contracted with BlueServo, which had worked on the November 2006 test program, to set up the cameras and operate the Web site.
Virtual wannabe deputy reports
Although law enforcement results from the Web program have been underwhelming, the amount of online traffic the site generated has been substantial.
The El Paso Times requested and received about a week’s worth of e-mail that came in through the site in February after a spate of national and international news stories about the program.
Viewers sent approximately 3,900 reports and comments to the site from Feb. 2 to Feb. 8. Many had questions about just what they were supposed to be looking for. Dozens said they were confused about which images were humans and which were animals.
Some, such as Phyllis Waller of Bartlesville, Okla., reported precisely what they saw.
“Cow or deer walked by; now out of screen,” she wrote.
Another activity report simply read, “armadillo by the water.”
One border watcher offered some advice: “Just a word of warning: A moment ago I saw a spider crawl across the top of the camera. You might want to try and prevent any webs from being spun across the lens area by treating with repellent or take other measures.”
Some wondered if their border watching could pay off in dollars.
“Say if we do actualy (sic) catch someone do we get e (sic) reward or something ..?” one watcher asked.
A few indicated their personal views of undocumented immigrants.
“Two wetbacks and a dog walking across screen,” one watcher reported.
At least one person seemed to find humor in the border camera project.
“There are some men crossing the water. They have a bottle of tequila and a big hat with them,” read one of the activity reports, presumably not a serious one.
Reay said reports from the camera watchers were directed to local law enforcement.
Chris Acosta, an El Paso County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman, said the department never responded to any alerts from the cameras.
Waller, the border camera watcher in Oklahoma, said she spends about an hour each evening after work during the week and a little more time during the weekend patrolling the border online.
Her other Internet pastime, she said, is watching a site that tracks bald eagles.
“I watch eagles and illegals. That’s a fun thing to do,” she said.
She said she didn’t know whether the hours she logged assisted law enforcement, but she hoped her reports were helpful.
“I’m interested in decreasing the number of illegals,” she said. “I don’t care if they come over as long as they do it legally. I don’t like the drugs, I don’t like the crime.”
Lubbock retiree Lee Bowden said he logged onto the site a few times each week to watch the border. Like Waller, he hoped his work would help curb illegal immigration.
“I think a lot of our problem here in the states concerning drug trafficking is originating from these illegals that’s coming in,” Bowden said.
He said he only reported suspicious activity a couple of times in the several months he had watched the cameras.
Watching isn’t very exciting, he said. The most interesting thing he saw was a bird that perched near one of the cameras and peered directly into the lens.
But, he said, the program seemed to be a worthwhile venture and he hoped funding for it would continue.
“Most of the time it’s looking at bare ground. it’s not very interesting, but you’re always hopeful you’ll see something that can do some good,” Bowden said.
Want to waste money with another try?
Experts on both sides of the immigration issue, those who want tighter security and those who want comprehensive reform of U.S. policy, said Perry’s border camera experiment was ineffective.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which promotes immigration restrictions, said the camera program was worth a shot.
“Maybe it isn’t worth spending another 2 million bucks on it, but I would have to say it certainly was worth spending the first $2 million,” Krikorian said.
Texas, he said, could do more to curb illegal immigration by using that $2 million to crack down on employers who hire undocumented workers.
University of Texas at El Paso anthropology Professor Josiah Heyman, a border expert, called the Texas Border Watch program “expensive and dumb.”
Seventeen cameras on the vast expanse of borderland between Mexico and Texas, he said, would do little to stop the illegal flow of drugs and people into the United States.
“The cameras out in open country are just completely a distraction from the elephant in the room,” Heyman said.
Most contraband that enters the country, he said, comes through the ports of entry. The backpacks and Hummers full of drugs that come through the brush country between the ports are small potatoes compared with the semi-trucks and train cars loaded down with drugs and people that often make it through the complex and overloaded land port security system.
“Two million dollars would be a drop in the bucket, but it would be an a lot more effective drop in the bucket if it was focused on ports of entry instead of wide-open spaces,” Heyman said.
Shapleigh said money that has been spent on cameras would be better used to fund investigative work by the Texas Department of Public Safety to stop drug cartels that are fueling violence on both sides of the border.
“Border cameras,” he said, “are about political pandering, not real border security.”