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Memphis’s SkyCop cameras couldn’t prevent Tyre Nichols’s beating death

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When Memphis police released footage last week of their officers savagely beating Tyre Nichols, some of the most haunting video came from a camera mounted on a utility pole across the street — part of a citywide surveillance network, known as SkyCop, built on 2,100 cameras that broadcast images back to a police command center every minute of every day.

Known for their blinking blue lights, the SkyCop cameras now blanket many of the city’s neighborhoods, gas stations, sidewalks and parks. The company that runs SkyCop, whose vice president of sales previously worked for the Memphis police, promotes it as a powerful crime deterrent that can help “neighborhoods take back their streets.”

But after a decade in which Memphis taxpayers have paid $10 million to expand the surveillance system, crime in the city has gone up. And Nichols’s killing has offered a stark reality check of how ineffective the cameras can be in the face of real-world violence.

“Surveillance doesn’t prevent crime, even police crime,” said Andrew Guthrie Ferguson, a professor at American University Washington College of Law. “These officers knew they were on camera, and they still did this.”

Cities across the country, faced with rising crime and slimming budgets, have in recent years scrambled to invest in sweeping surveillance networks that greatly expand whom and where the police can see. Unlike older “closed circuit” camera networks, these systems, like SkyCop, send live video to “real-time crime centers” staffed by police officers who can follow pursuits or track suspects.

No agency tracks nationwide camera installation statistics, but major cities have invested heavily in such networks. Police in Washington, D.C., said they had deployed cameras at nearly 300 intersections by 2021, up from 48 in 2007. In Chicago, more than 30,000 cameras are viewable by police; in parts of New York City, the cameras watch every block.

Yet researchers have found no substantive evidence that the cameras actually reduce crime. And their use as a tool for police accountability is limited by the fact that the footage is viewed almost exclusively by the police themselves, raising questions over what other altercations might go unseen or ignored.

Joe Patty II, a former Memphis police surveillance official who installed many of the city’s SkyCop cameras, including the one that captured the Nichols beating, and who now works as a security consultant for SkyCop, said the cameras can still play a critical role in helping investigate crimes.

“Crimes of passion cannot be deterred. I don’t care if there’s a squad car sitting on a lot. We don’t even try to sell it or pitch it like that,” Patty said. “In the Nichols case, that was a crime of passion, and it was caught on video. So it had a dual purpose: There was no deterrent factor, but it was valuable in this case.”

Police video surveillance has become popular in some neighborhoods, including in Memphis, where community groups over the years have requested that the city install cameras nearby or raised money to pay for their own. Without the SkyCop camera, some Memphis residents have said, the only footage of the officers’ brutality would have come from the shaky, often-obstructed cameras worn by the officers themselves.

Van Turner, president of the NAACP’s Memphis branch, said at a news conference last week that he had supported the cameras’ installation in Nichols’s neighborhood when he served on the county commission.

“Little did we know we would be combating this type of criminal behavior, as well,” Turner said. “We put SkyCop cameras up to assist the police in fighting crime in our community. And yet they come and commit the very same crimes we are trying to fight against. But glory be to God that a SkyCop camera was there to catch what happened.”

Some question whether the cameras have been worth the cost, though. Jerred Price, a past president of Memphis’s Downtown Neighborhood Association, said he helped raise more than $30,000 to install four SkyCop cameras in his neighborhood five years ago after his neighbors “felt that it would give them some eyes in the sky, so to speak … a little more peace of mind.”

Since then, neighborhood opinions have been mixed. “A friend of mine was parked at a business in downtown, where a SkyCop camera was literally blinking over the top of his car, and someone broke into the car,” Price said. Elsewhere in the city, a SkyCop camera recorded a wild shootout last summer that played out just a few yards from its blinking light.

The data suggests Price and his neighbors are right to be skeptical. An investigation by the Daily Memphian in 2021 found that violent crime rates in the city had consistently climbed, outpacing the state and country, over the years the cameras were installed. The cameras were mentioned in less than 3 percent of the more than 74,000 crime reports filed that year, including only one of the 228 murders, the investigation found.

Memphis police officials did not immediately respond to questions about the SkyCop system, including whether the agency would use past footage to review other altercations involving the since-disbanded Scorpion unit involved in the Nichols case.

Surveillance systems have long been at the center of a broad debate about community policing and privacy. In federal court, judges have debated whether round-the-clock police video recording could constitute an unreasonable search as prohibited by the Fourth Amendment. Though the cameras are installed in public areas, they also capture many corners of residential life, including people’s doors and windows.

“Are we just going to put these cameras in front of everybody’s house and monitor them and see if anybody’s up to anything?” U.S. Circuit Judge O. Rogeriee Thompson said during oral arguments for one such case in 2021.

The cameras’ locations have also raised questions over whether they are contributing to inequalities on who gets arrested or surveilled. One Stanford University study in 2021, which reviewed the locations of tens of thousands of surveillance cameras across the United States, found that they were largely concentrated in neighborhoods with higher populations of people of color.

And the technology has increasingly become more advanced. Many camera systems are being linked with artificial intelligence “analytics” software that allows officers to search hours of videos for a specific piece of clothing or use facial recognition to identify passersby.

SkyCop’s metal boxes are installed above city streets and designed to be noticed. The standard unit, which starts at $5,500, comes with one high-definition camera and cellular equipment that allows it to broadcast video in real time. Their blinking blue lights are visible to travelers landing at Memphis’s airport.

Many of the boxes also have been upgraded with more advanced features for an additional price. Some have microphones that can be used to detect gunshots; others have loudspeakers that officers can use to talk to people within camera range. A number of the boxes, Patty said, are outfitted with license-plate recognition software that records the time and location of every passing car.

The SkyCop cameras, including the one that witnessed Nichols’s beating, can be moved and zoomed at will by officers watching from the crime center. In a 31-minute video shared from that night by Memphis police, the SkyCop camera can be seen panning from one side of the street to the other to focus on the officers as they kick, pummel and pepper spray Nichols, who is writhing on the ground. The SkyCop footage does not include audio, but in the officers’ body-camera videos, Nichols can be heard saying, “I’m just trying to go home.”

Memphis officials said Tuesday they were preparing to release more video from the case within the next few weeks. Before the SkyCop video was released last week, officers had described the violent encounter in vague terms, saying “a confrontation occurred.”

Dave Maass, a director at the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation who researches police surveillance technology, said these systems have expanded rapidly in the United States without real evidence that they have led to a drop in crime.

“This often isn’t the community coming in and asking for it, it’s police going to conferences where … vendors are promising the world and that they’ll miraculously solve crimes,” Maass said. “But it’s just a commercial thing. It’s just business.”

Memphis’s first SkyCop cameras were bought by businesses and neighborhood groups and donated to the police, which became responsible for the cameras’ long-term maintenance and use.

In 2016, facing criticism that the cameras mostly watched tourist-friendly streets and wealthy neighborhoods, the city approved an initiative, known as the Sentinel program, that would spend taxpayer money to install dozens of cameras a year throughout the city, focusing largely on areas that crime statistics suggested could be “hot spots.”

Patty, who then worked as part of a three-man team that drove a boom truck through the city to install the SkyCop boxes, said he remembers installing the camera, overlooking the residential road of Castlegate Lane, that would later capture Nichols’s beating. At the time, he said, the neighborhood had seen an increase in property crimes, and police believed that utility pole would give officers a clear view of passing traffic — “the most bang for the buck.”

That suburban neighborhood, Hickory Hills, was relatively quiet, known for blocks of brick ranch houses with big lawns and two-car garages. Nichols, 29, who loved skateboarding and photography, had moved there in 2020 to live with his mother, stepfather and 4-year-old son.

The cameras were broadly popular with the police, Patty said. In 2017, he told the Wall Street Journal that some officers had used the cameras to monitor demonstrations at the city’s Confederate monuments and Black Lives Matter protests.

But by 2018, crime rates in some camera-wired neighborhoods had climbed, and police officials had begun urging people to adjust their expectations.

“We worry sometimes that cameras give people this false sense” of security, Don Crowe, then a deputy police chief, told WMC Action News 5. “We tell everybody … every bank has cameras in it, but people still rob banks.”

Christopher Holland, a Memphis resident who lives downtown, was on the board of a homeowners association that installed eight cameras near the beginning of 2020 after a recurring problem with car break-ins. The burglaries stopped for almost a year before resuming, even as the cameras recorded around-the-clock.

“You could count the zits on [the thieves’] head,” he said, but homeowners couldn’t always do anything about it. The group grew frustrated after reporting incidents and being told police couldn’t access the footage and to send in relevant snippets of what happened. There was “disappointment that we were having to do what we felt like was the police department’s job,” he said.

Though crime rates have increased in the city, Patty said it’s impossible to know how much criminal activity the SkyCop cameras might have prevented just due to their presence. “I can’t imagine the arrest rate and solve rate without SkyCops documenting that uptick in crime,” he said.

He also said he is proud that the SkyCop camera could contribute to the investigation into Nichols’s death and that he hopes more cities will see the episode as reason to expand their own surveillance networks.

“SkyCop is there, 365 days a year. It doesn’t take vacations or breaks,” he said. “It’s the most indiscriminate form of policing there is. The camera doesn’t care. It just records.”

But Ferguson, the American University professor, cautioned against citing the Nichols video as proof that more cameras would help improve police conduct. Body-worn cameras, he said, have led to some moments of accountability, but officers “have also learned to manipulate them — in what they say, in how they frame it, in how they forget to turn them on.”

More cities should ensure that local leaders get unfettered access to the camera footage, outside of police control, he said. They should also consider whether the cameras are the best use of their money in the first place.

“This is the duality of public surveillance: The police can’t escape it anymore than the citizens can,” Ferguson said. “But if police control the cameras, they control the accountability. It doesn’t have to be that way.”

Freedman reported from Memphis.

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