‘It feels like Big Brother’ — Knoxville City Council debates police camera surveillance

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Knoxville City Council Member, Seema Singh of the 6th District.

Knoxville City Council voted Tuesday to spend nearly $90,000 to design a “Real Time Crime Center,” or RTCC, that would allow police to use cameras to place parts of the city under constant surveillance

The proposed facility would be located inside the future Knoxville Public Safety Complex, which is under construction at the old St. Mary’s Hospital site in North Knoxville. 

Although the measure to fund the design was approved in a 7-2 vote, several council members voiced concerns about allowing the police to utilize surveillance cameras as planned. 

“This would make me feel less safe,” said Council member Seema Singh, who represents the 3rd District. “There are things that were legal June 30 that are no longer legal,” Singh said. “So as things progress, I would hate to see the technology increase and our rights be more limited. So I’m going to be voting against it. It just makes me very uncomfortable.”

Singh also cited concerns about the technological shortcomings of facial recognition that may lead to individuals with darker skin tones being misidentified. 

Knoxville Police Chief Paul Noel (Source: CCTV)

KPD Chief Paul Noel, however, countered that KPD doesn’t currently possess any technology that could facilitate the use of facial recognition and so far there are no plans to pursue it. 

“We have not acquired any technology yet,” said Noel. “I would not be seeking to use facial recognition with live video tracking of individuals.”

Instead, Noel said the RTCC would be used to target violent crime and more quickly apprehend suspects.

“I know that the intention behind this is for safety and for all of these good reasons. But still, the overall effect is it makes me feel less safe about even going to other cities that have this technology,” said Singh. “It feels like Big Brother.”

City Council approved funding the RTCC last year, and money for its construction was included as a capital item in the 2022-23 budget, City officials said. 

The $1.52 million facility will include a 12-person conference area and room for analysts to monitor a network of at least 15 cameras that will be set up to monitor Market Square Mall, the Old City, and the so-called “Mission district” in the 300 and 400 blocks of Broadway, documents show.

The new Knoxville Public Safety Complex is under construction in North Knoxville. (Source: City of Knoxville)

When asked about the planned center before the meeting, KPD spokesperson Scott Erland said it was “still a work in progress.”

“The Real-Time Crime Center is a centralized facility where new and existing technology will be integrated to provide immediate critical information to first responders as they respond to calls for service and investigators as they conduct follow-up investigations after crimes occur,” said Erland. 

“The RTCC will provide real-time information to officers as they respond to crimes or other calls for service, situational awareness during special events or critical incidents, and crucial information to assist investigators,” he said.

Council member-at-large Amelia Parker also raised concerns about the program in light of  Tennessee’s newly passed law that makes camping on public property a felony. She also characterized the City’s push for the program as exploitative of the pain felt in Knoxville’s black communities amid the recent spike in gun violence.

Knoxville City Council member-at-large Amelia Parker. (Source: CCTV)

“We’ve had different explanations shared with us for the intended use of this Real Time Crime Center which, to me, is using the pain that the black community and others are experiencing right now from the gun violence in this community,” Parker said. 

“But they’re not shifting the resources towards that issue and instead are continuing to criminalize our unhoused neighbors,” said Parker.

Parker said she couldn’t support the RTCC without more discussion or information about how the cameras would be regulated.

According to Noel, details like camera placement will eventually be decided through conducting research and analyzing data. 

“What I would propose that we do with the camera sites is to use data analytics to determine the most efficient locations for us to effectively be able to respond to violent crime in our communities, and deploy the cameras in those areas to help us reduce violent crime,” Noel said. “I did not envision using these cameras in any way to deal with homelessness at all. It would be to help us reduce and prevent crime in our community.”

Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon pointed to other cities that already have similar programs in place.

Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon (Source: CCTV)

“Many, many police departments around the country and in Tennessee already have Real Time Crime Centers, including Chattanooga and Memphis. Nashville is putting theirs in place now, but also cities larger and smaller like Montgomery, Alabama, Atlanta, Louisville… I think there are at least 100 if not more communities that already are using this as part of their community safety efforts,” said Kincannon.

Council member Gwen McKenzie of the 6th District said she can see how a surveillance system could be beneficial in situations involving violent crime or traffic incidents. 

Council member Gwen McKenzie of the 6th District (Source: CCTV)

“In the past, when there have been some horrendous acts of violence that have occurred, the footage … quality has not been sufficient to even be able to identify or make out who the perpetrators or suspects were. I would hope that at some point, we might be able to explore that… so when something does occur, that there’s at least some type of footage that we can use to help maybe solve that a lot sooner. So I’m sure that’s a different conversation down the road, but I support this effort,” said McKenzie. 

Tuesday night’s vote paved the way for City officials to pursue a design for the program’s center of operation. The design phase is expected to take about three to six months to complete. 

J.J. Stambaugh contributed to this report. 

Megan Sadler can be reached at news@hardknoxwire.com.

Published on July 13, 2022