More Cities Turn to Surveillance Cameras

From a Wall Street Journal story by Mariah Timms and Zusha Elinson headlined “More Cities Turn to Surveillance Cameras, Like the One That Caught Tyre Nichols Beating”:

Surveillance cameras like the one that captured police officers beating Tyre Nichols have proliferated in the U.S. in recent years, even as researchers, civil-liberties advocates and law-enforcement officials debate whether they are effective at combating violent crime.

Footage released last week by the city of Memphis from a pole-mounted surveillance camera provided a clearer view than the officers’ body-worn cameras of the Jan. 7 encounter, when Mr. Nichols was punched, kicked and struck with batons. He died in a Memphis hospital three days later.

Most studies have shown that public surveillance systems in the U.S. don’t have much impact on violent crime but can reduce property crimes such as thefts and break-ins, said Daniel Lawrence, a research scientist at the nonprofit CNA Corporation’s Center for Justice Research and Innovation.

Such cameras also have helped increase the rates at which crimes are solved in some cities by providing video evidence, he said.

“​The quality of surveillance cameras tends to be much better than body-worn cameras—they’re stationary, you can zoom in and out,” said Frank Straub, a retired police chief who is now a director at the National Policing Institute, a nonprofit research organization.

There is no recent public data on how many surveillance cameras are in the U.S., but researchers say the number is growing. A widely cited 2019 study by research firm IHS Markit projected the number would grow from 70 million that year to 85 million in 2021.

The majority are owned by businesses and individuals, according to the study. Footage from privately-owned cameras is regularly used by police in criminal investigations, including in last year’s killing of University of Idaho students and the recent attempted firebombing of a synagogue in New Jersey.

However, some cities have installed their own cameras in efforts to solve and prevent crime, often over the objection of civil-liberties advocates. Chicago has more than 30,000 cameras.

In Memphis, which has about 2,100 publicly installed cameras, officers periodically monitor video feeds and can access them based on several factors, including if they are notified of a high-priority event in the area, said Maj. Karen Rudolph, a police department spokeswoman. Such cameras have reduced crime in some areas of the city and helped the department crack cases, she said.

Chad Marlow, Senior Policy Counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, said surveillance cameras are overwhelmingly deployed in minority communities, raising concerns about civil rights along with those about civil-liberties infringement.

“It almost makes the communities where they have these cameras feel like open-air prisons,” he said.

Mr. Marlow said an analysis by the ACLU found the presence of cameras hardly ever meaningfully limits police misconduct. “A camera was there,” Mr. Marlow said. “It didn’t keep Tyre safe. All it did was produce evidence of this killing.”

Steve Mulroy, the district attorney of Shelby County, which includes Memphis, said he understands “Big Brother” concerns, but defended the benefits of such a system.

“They do serve a useful purpose sometimes in not only in preventing police abuses in this case, but they’re just, you know, fighting regular crime,” said Mr. Mulroy, a Democrat. “Like all useful tools, they can be abused, and you need safeguards to prevent the abuse.”

Maj. Rudolph declined to answer questions about the use of the surveillance camera in Mr. Nichols’s case, including whether officers were monitoring the feed of the camera, which was mounted on a street pole. ​The footage released by the city shows the camera moving during the beating to an angle that centers the officers and Mr. Nichols in the image.

Joe Patty, a security consultant with SkyCop, the contractor that installed the cameras in Memphis, said based on the footage he saw, a person had to have been watching the feed during the beating of Mr. Nichols and remotely moved the camera. Mr. Patty said he worked on the camera-installation project when he was a Memphis police lieutenant.

Memphis police fired five officers involved in the beating of Mr. Nichols last month and charged them with second-degree murder, among other offenses. Lawyers for two of the officers declined to comment and lawyers for the others couldn’t be identified.

Earlier this week, three Memphis emergency medical technicians were fired and two additional police officers were relieved from duty as officials continued their investigations. A lawyer for one of the officers said his client was cooperating in the investigation. The other officer’s name wasn’t released by officials, and the EMTs couldn’t be reached for comment.

Memphis first began installing surveillance cameras in high-crime neighborhoods in 2016. It bought them from SkyCop. Mr. Patty said the Memphis-based company had seen annual sales grow by double digits in recent years. St. Louis and other cities have also purchased cameras, he said.

In Memphis, SkyCop cameras dot the residential area near where Mr. Nichols was first stopped, including some along the route he might have driven that night. The small, white boxes with blinking blue lights are usually attached to poles near street corners.

CNA’s Mr. Lawrence said the main reason such surveillance systems aren’t more extensive in the U.S. is a lack of funding. And even in cities with camera networks, the feeds sometimes go unmonitored, he said.

In Fresno, Calif., the police department temporarily closed its center where officers monitored live video feeds for about two years because of short staffing and budget constraints, according to Police ​Chief Paco Balderrama. Officers resumed monitoring video feeds in 2021, the chief said.

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