The flashing-blue-light cameras on East Nashville’s street corners aren’t filming crime areas just yet, but Metro police expect to activate the new technology by the end of the year.
Law enforcement cameras have been downtown for years, police spokesman Don Aaron said, but the outdated technology had become difficult to use, prompting an upgrade partially funded by a Department of Homeland Security grant.
Police were already looking to upgrade the surveillance technology when the federal department granted funds for cameras to monitor the Cumberland River.
“We merged those projects together to be more efficient,” Aaron said. “They’re looking for riverboat activity, homeland security monitoring, barge traffic; cameras also pick up on some of the bridge piers and the banks of the river.”
New cameras will replace the older ones downtown and have already been established on Shelby Avenue, Lafayette Street and Gallatin Pike, but police expect additional precincts to request them.
“Once we bring this first phase online and it’s all working well, we’ll look at others,” said John Singleton of the Metro Nashville Police Department’s Information and Technology Department. “I think you’ll see additional ones.”
Police cameras have been used successfully in the past, allowing officers to look for additional evidence after a crime is reported.
Cameras were successfully used to solve a nonfatal shooting on Broadway in 2010, said Detective Sgt. Tony Blackburn. A vehicle matching the suspect’s description was stopped only a few blocks away on Korean Veterans Boulevard, but the driver and passengers told officers they were not aware of or involved in a shooting.
“So the laptop was brought in while they were still having that car held,” Blackburn said, “and they verified 100 percent that it was the same car. We were able to put a case together that probably would have never been solved if it hadn’t been for that camera.”
The new pan-tilt-zoom cameras — so named for the ability to remotely control their direction and zoom — produce higher quality images than the older technology, and the footage is easier to access.
“If a detective needed to pull video to see if there was any evidence of a robbery or an assault, you actually had to call a vendor who had to go up on a pole and pull a hard drive out of the camera,” Singleton said.
It was a two-hour process to get five minutes of footage, Blackburn said.
The new cameras are connected through a wireless network, but the six East Nashville and two Lafayette Street installments are still in a testing phase while Metro police establish protocol and accessibility to the media and attorneys.
Eventually, investigators will be able to remotely view a live stream on office computers, as well as pull older footage.
But even though the cameras are not currently rolling, the blue lights are flashing, and police hope drawing attention to the systems will stop crimes from occurring in the first place.
“These cameras are overt — they’re not hidden away, they have flashing blue lights on them — and those cameras are both a tool to investigate crime and a deterrent against crime,” Aaron said
Many business owners, especially downtown, appreciate that the lights signal to passersby that someone is watching.
“I think it’s a good idea,” said Terry Weakley, manager of Rippy’s Bar & Grill on Lower Broadway. “I think if people can see them, and are aware of them, they’ll watch their step a bit more.”
Three of the new cameras are on Shelby Avenue between the Cayce Place and Edgefield Manor housing units, operated by the Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency.
“We’ve been very pleased with them so far,” said Holly McCall, MDHA communications director. “For any citizen, as well as the people in our housing communities, it makes you feel a little better that there’s an eye there.”
But nationally, critics have worried that surveillance is a sign of invasive law enforcement. In 2007, as the use of police cameras became more common, California affiliates of the American Civil Liberties Union released a report that questioned the effectiveness of cameras in solving crimes.
The report, titled Under the Watchful Eye, called government-run video surveillance a threat to privacy rights.
“Video monitoring of public space gives the government a vast quantity of information on private citizens that would otherwise be unavailable,” the ACLU report said.
But police are quick to point out that cameras are only located at public intersections, and there’s no intention to film in or around private homes.
“It’s not for traffic enforcement, and it’s not to be intrusive to anyone’s personal space,” Blackburn said. “It’s merely for safety and security.”