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VOL. 42 | NO. 28 | Friday, July 13, 2018

Belle Meade, Metro at odds concerning surveillance cameras

By Colleen Creamer

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The new video surveillance cameras will look much like this demo unit that is currently operating near the intersection of Harding Road and Hillwood Blvd.

-- Lyle Graves | The Ledger

Law enforcement in Belle Meade will soon have another detection tool in place when the city erects 20 license plate recognition cameras at major points of entry and exit in the city.

However, some Metro Davidson County council members are not thrilled with what they consider a nick in civil liberties so close to home.

The Belle Meade Police department will have the ability to pull video after a crime has been committed. Law enforcement also will be notified when the system recognizes a license plate from a national crime database, says Beth Reardon, Belle Meade’s city manager.

A violent break-in in the city spurred commissioners to further look into a surveillance system.

“We had been subject to a number of car break-ins, just like Green Hills and West Meade, over the past couple of years but, in addition, we had a home invasion, and an elderly lady was beaten up, which was just horrific for Belle Meade,” Reardon explains.

“Our police investigator said that if we’d had video cameras we could have caught those guys in under two hours; we could have tracked them on their way out if not on their way in.”

Belle Meade’s first “demonstration camera” has been in use at the intersection of Harding Road and Hillwood Boulevard for more than a year.

“We were looking at a million-dollar project to outfit cameras at all of our major intersections. So, we kept studying it and thinking about it. Then, two years ago we took another good look at it, and by that time the technology had improved and the prices had come down … the commissioners voted on it and we decided to go for it.”

Use of surveillance by law enforcement was restricted in Davidson County in 2017 by Metro Council. But because Belle Meade is a satellite city and has a separate police force, it is not bound by Metro Davidson County rules.

The Metro ordinance specifically names license plate scanners to mean any electronic device used for determining the ownership of a vehicle, the mileage or route it travels as well as the location or the identity of its occupants.

The Metro ordinance further states that … “misuse of, or over-reliance upon, surveillance technology and electronic data gathering poses substantial and significant dangers to the privacy rights of citizens.”

The ordinance was sponsored by Metro Council District 35 (Bellevue area) representative Dave Rosenberg, who has been an adamant opponent of surveillance systems.

“Our ordinance prohibits the type of license plate scanner that Belle Meade uses. Unfortunately, our ordinances do not apply within the city limits of satellite cities,” Rosenberg says. “It’s disappointing that Belle Meade is pressing forward with these Big Brother tactics that invade the privacy of their citizens, along with the privacy of Nashvillians passing through.

“In addition, these cameras leave a hackable record of when nearby homes are typically unoccupied, leaving them vulnerable.”

Reardon says fears over anyone coming in and looking at video are not founded because the video will roll over in 90 days and won’t be monitored.

“We are not tracking anybody,” Reardon insists. “I mean we did get some feedback from people even outside of Nashville saying that we would be watching everybody, but we won’t.

“There are no monitors at our dispatch office where they can just look at anything 24/7. But, you know, some people are sensitive about that. So, we have to respect that, too.”

Reardon adds Belle Meade has been able to assist drivers who got into accidents at the Harding/Highway 70 intersection, but she explains that Belle Meade’s system will not be able to issue speeding tickets, as some LPR systems can, because the system does not track speed.

“These are not citation cameras. We are not interested in that,” Reardon continues. “We were approached several years ago by a firm that sells those, and the commissioner said absolutely not.”

Belle Meade police chief Timothy Eads says Metro Nashville governance – and law enforcement – is singularly apart from laws binding Belle Meade and that the public’s input was critical in helping Belle Meade make such a decision.

“Belle Meade is a sovereign city with its own charter and government, so the Metro ordinance does not impact us,” Eads adds. “It would be the same for Berry Hill, for instance … The city has been working on this for several years. We have held public meetings on the issue with almost 100 percent agreement and support from Belle Meade residents.”

District 26 (southern Davidson County, east of I-65) council representative Jeremy Elrod, who co-sponsored the Metro legislation with Rosenberg and District 16 council member Mike Freeman, says on the heels of Belle Meade’s effort, they proposed the requirement for council approval.

“The main point of the ordinance was if law enforcement was going to start installing surveillance cameras in our right-of-way or on utility poles they have to get the approval of Metro Council, because that is a significant change in how we are handling law enforcement activities in the city,” Elrod says.

Just that the video could be pulled by anyone, he adds, could be problematic.

“As you know, everything in local government is open record unless there is an exemption under state law,” Elrod notes. “I could imagine someone who’s got too much time on their hands starts looking at all the license plates that are coming in and out and saying these are the people who live here and these are the people who don’t.”

Only law enforcement will have access to the cameras, Reardon points out.

“There is nothing here that we are doing in the dark of the night, tracking anyone or anything like that,” Reardon adds.

“That [demonstration camera] has been up for a year and a half now, and we have been able to access video when we needed it. Metro is aware that we have it, and it has helped solve a couple of crimes for them.”

For Amber Alerts alone, Eads says, the surveillance system could be effective.

“The technology is for safety, and it is believed to be a great crime prevention tool as well,” Eads adds. “The LPR will be used for criminal cases only or to look for, say, Amber Alert vehicles. We believe this technology will enhance our efforts to solve a crime if it occurs, as well.”

If the cost of the system had not dropped, Reardon acknowledges, it would have been too costly, adding that Belle Meade hired a consultant who worked with surveillance systems for the Memphis Police Department.

“We were looking at a million-dollar project at a point in time,” she adds. “About two years ago, we took another good look at it, and by then the technology had improved and the prices had come down considerably, so we decided to really get serious about it.”

When the entire system is up and running, Belle Meade will have a total of 20 cameras at 20 intersections including the one that is already in use.

“All of our poles are ready except for one, and we are waiting for AT&T permission to attach the boxes,” Reardon says. “We are hoping that within maybe 30 days or so we will have our video surveillance system up and running … We are not using any Metro tax dollars.

“This is the city of Belle Meade’s revenue. Our commissioners are the ones that approved it, and our police officers will be the ones using the information if an incident should occur.”