Debate over license plate readers returns to Metro Council Tuesday

By: - April 20, 2021 4:02 am
License plate reading technology. (Photo: Getty Images)

License plate reading technology. (Photo: Getty Images)

A long-delayed debate over the use of license plate reader technology on Nashville’s public streets returns to Metro Council on Tuesday night with competing arguments over privacy versus over-policing.

License plate readers—typically mounted on road signs, bridges, traffic poles and police cars —can capture thousands of digital license plate images each minute. Those images can be transmitted to law enforcement for various purposes, including catching speeders and stolen cars, solving crimes and responding to Amber and Silver Alerts for missing children and seniors. 

The technology appears to be widely used, though data is scarce. A years-old survey found more than 70% of police departments across the country have or plan to use the technology and private subdivisions and neighborhood associations have also installed the cameras.

But in Nashville, where the introduction of the LPR measure comes after a lengthy stretch of emotionally fraught controversies over racial profiling in traffic stops, police funding and accountability, opponents are questioning the decision to allocate more surveillance and enforcement power to police.

Metro Nashville Councilmember Courtney Johnston (Photo: Submitted)
Metro Nashville Councilmember Courtney Johnston (Photo: Submitted)

The debate may be complicated by the involvement of a little-known Nashville nonprofit with opaque funding launched last fall by Nashville real estate investor Dan McVicker. SaferNashville has offered to raise money to cover the costs of camera technology and has on its board two council members sponsoring the LPR measure—Courtney Johnston and Robert Nash — along with District Attorney Glenn Funk and Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Charles.

“Nashvillians deserve to know who is funding an organization claiming to know what our community needs to be safer, and which private interests stand to benefit from the use of LPRs in Nashville,” said a letter sent Monday to Metro Councilmembers from Andres Martinez, chair of the Community Oversight Board.

The COB is urging the board to table the measure until there is more opportunity for input from communities of color and low-income residents, who are among those least likely to have been able to participate in online meetings regarding the proposed ordinance, the letter said.

But Johnston, who proposed the measure, characterized the pushback as out of proportion to her limited proposal.

“I think this is getting caught up in larger controversies that it should not be,” Johnston said. “It takes pictures; that’s all it does. There is no personal information. This is not new technology. It really is innocuous.”

Johnston said the proposed ordinance, which has the support of Nashville Police Chief John Drake, was prompted by the public safety concerns of constituents in her southeast Nashville district.

“There are people in my district who are terrified to be on their front porch,” she said. “We don’t have enough police officers. More and more, we’ll have to rely on technology to fill in the gap of a police presence.”

Her constituents include members of the immigrant community, who may be fearful of contacting police or seeing a greater police presence patrolling their neighborhoods, — which, in turn, makes them more vulnerable to crimes, she said.

Metro Councilmember Dave Rosenberg. (Photo from Dave for Bellevue website)
Metro Councilmember Dave Rosenberg says the use of license plate reading technology could open the floodgates to surveillance by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, among other agencies. (Photo from Dave for Bellevue website)

Councilmember David Rosenberg said the measure is unnecessary and could “open the floodgates” to sharing of data with local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

“Once you spend money and start putting these things on poles it’s very difficult to take them down,” he said. The technology could be used to see who is entering mosques or union halls, he said.  

Rosenberg said he has deep concerns about the future use of data by the public as well. A bill sent to the Governor’s desk last week requires that captured plate data from automatic license plate reader systems be treated as confidential and not be open for inspection by members of the public. Built into the bill is a provision, however, is that it will expire in 2026. 

The measure does not protect the records from subpoena from federal, state or local authorities, Rosenberg said.

Community groups, including the Community Oversight Board, the Nashville NAACP, and SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice) have also expressed opposition to the measure. A coalition of immigrant groups on Monday urged councilmembers to vote ‘no,’ including the American Muslim Advisory Council, Conexion Americas, Workers Dignity/Dignidad Obrera, API Middle TN and the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition.

In response to feedback since the bill was filed in January, Johnston and other sponsors of the LPR measure have introduced an amendment limiting the scope of how the data will be collected, used and retained. 

The amendment would limit the uses of the technology only to specific offenses: reckless driving or drag racing in excess of 70 miles per hour, identifying and recovering stolen vehicles and plates, and to aid in prosecution of violent crimes including homicide and assault. 

Gina Coleman has lived in Haynes Park for 39 years and she and neighbors raised $4,500 for 2 security cameras in the neighborhood. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Not all neighborhoods are averse to license plate readers or neighborhood surveillance. Gina Coleman has lived in Haynes Park for 39 years and she and neighbors raised $4,500 for 2 security cameras in the neighborhood. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The scanners must be equitably distributed through the north, south, east and west quadrants of the county, according to the amendment, which will be heard Tuesday. Access to the LPR system would be limited to 10 employees and audits would be regularly required. 

Two councilmembers and a member of the Community Oversight Board would have access to an audit log of the data. A 30-day retention period for the data would be reduced to one and the city would be barred with sharing the LPR for any purpose except law enforcement. 

The measure does not include a funding mechanism —it would be up to the police department to include its cost in their budget, Johnston said. 

That’s where SaferNashville enters the debate.

The nonprofit was established in the fall, around the same time that Councilmember Joy Styles withdrew her proposal to add LPRs in an effort to crack down on drag racing after she faced similar criticisms. It received its IRS nonprofit status in January, according to federal records. 

SaferNashville has pledged to raise money to purchase the license plate reader technology at no cost to the city.

“SaferNashville is taking a leadership role in supporting this legislation, as well as the use, funding and long-term maintenance of LPR’s in Metro Nashville Davidson County,” a letter from the group’s founder, Dan McVicker said. “This will be our first initiative of many. SaferNashville will provide strong leadership now and in the years to come in support of Metro Police.”

McVicker is a founding a managing partner of Ramson Capital, a real estate development and investment firm whose $28.5 million investment fund is targeting three ground-up multifamily apartment communities in the Southeast Nashville, according to its website.

Last year there was an unprecedented call to reallocate police financing. Instead we're seeing outside subsidies without any effort to redirect funding to police.

– Melissa Cherry, Showing up for Racial Justice, Nashville Chapter

McVicker did not respond to emailed questions about the groups funding sources or future plans. 

Andres Martinez, chair of the Community Oversight Board, questioned the involvement of SaferNashville, and the presence of council members on its board. He also criticized the lack of community debate over the cameras.

“This is an important issue dealing with policing and the community has not been engaged,” Martinez said in an interview. In his letter to councilmembers, Martinez wrote that “the COB is equally concerned with questions arising from the involvement” of the nonprofit.

But Johnston said SaferNashville is simply trying to be helpful.

“The whole thing (nonprofit) was started in order to increase safety,” Johnson said.  “I sit on the board. SaferNashville has only said ‘if we can be helpful we would be happy to raise the money.”

Johnston said Monday she expected letters of support to come in from the Salahadeen Center of Nashville, a predominantly Kurdish mosque, and owner of Plaza Mariachi, the multicultural mall on Nolensville Road.

Melissa Cherry, who serves on the steering committee for the Nashville chapter of SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice) said she was suspicious of any effort to secure private funding for law enforcement at a time when defunding the police has been a key topic of public discussion.

“Last year there was an unprecedented call to reallocate police financing,” she said. “Instead we’re seeing outside subsidies without any effort to redirect funding to police.”

She also criticized the measure as inevitably increasing traffic stops—a particular concern after a 2018 study found that police were disproportionately pulling over people of color during stops in Nashville.

“This move is a little confounding knowing it will increase traffic stops,” Cherry said. 

Rosenberg has introduced his own proposed substitution language that would roll back all of the language of the proposed measure, limiting uses of any camera data to stolen vehicles, cars connected to missing or endangered persons and those with a felony or probable cause search warrant.  It would also limit the retention of data before it must be destroyed. 

Brandon Tucker, policy director of the ACLU Tennessee, said ACLU had submitted a letter in support of Rosenberg’s substitute on Monday. ACLU Tennessee’s position on the original proposal was “neutral,” he said.

“ACLU of Tennessee is but one voice in the community,” he said. “The more genuine conversations the Metro Council can have with the Community Oversight Board, individual groups and individuals in communities of color are key to going forward.”


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Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee. She is a graduate of Columbia University in New York and the University of California at Berkeley School of Journalism. Wadhwani lives in Nashville with her partner and two children.