Camera Surveillance System Proposed for Downtown (And Continued Conversations Regarding Homelessness)

City Skyline, Knoxville, April 2020
City Skyline, Knoxville, April 2020

The Quality of Life committee of the Downtown Knoxville Alliance (formerly CBID) doesn’t usually catch my attention, but this one was an exception. Two requests were on the table that may make their way to the full board and ultimately impact all downtown residents.

The first was a proposal by Nikki Elliot that downtown begin a series of community conversations similar to the meeting with Helen Ross McNabb which I covered last month, but with more of a focus on residential issues surrounding homelessness and how to coordinate help between interested groups. In an effort to bring together stakeholders and leaders, she’d like to see the police represented, as well as the City Coordinators for Homelessness (who I interviewed here), local outreach workers to the homeless, leaders of the primary organizations focused on the issue and pastors of downtown churches.

Her view is that an ongoing conversation between these groups, with a focus on downtown, will lead to a more effective response to the current issues. Simply having residents and police officers know each other, she feels, would be a step forward. Others present expressed the feeling that police need to be empowered to remove people who are obstructing sidewalks and concern was expressed that all homeless services are clustered near downtown.

Ms. Elliot pointed out that “a lot of good is being done, but people don’t know it.” She said downtown needs to begin to act more like a neighborhood. She would like to see the conversations lead to specific action plans to more effectively get help to those in need while reducing the issues experienced by downtown residents and business owners.

The proposed idea for ongoing conversations, perhaps quarterly, will be discussed by the DKA Board.

Knoxville Skyline from the South Knoxville Bridge, June 2017

The other proposal led to more intense discussion. A group of downtown building owners and others have been meeting and were represented by Avi Zenatti, Iliana Brodt, and Melinda Grimac. According to the three, meetings have been held recently to discuss increasing downtown crime issues and those meetings have included policemen, Chief Economic and Community Development Officer Stephanie Welch. Downtown Coordinator Rick Emmitt was present and said he had attended one of the meetings.

The group presented a request to the Downtown Knoxville Alliance to provide financial support for a project that would include ten clusters of cameras around the downtown area. The ten were selected with help from the police present at the meetings and were chosen to focus on the highest downtown crime areas, but with buildings identified that are owned by people willing to have the cameras mounted there. Ultimately, the feeds from the cameras would be viewable from the KPD Crime Center which will be a part of the St. Mary’s development. The idea, they suggested, would allow police to respond directly to what they see on the screen without the need for a call.

The committee raised a number of questions, some pragmatic and some more philosophical. Pragmatically, who would own the cameras? Who would perform maintenance? Is this the best way to proceed given that cameras could be mounted (as has been discussed) on light poles and avoid involving property owners. Is this an effective crime deterrent?

Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame and Knoxville Skyline, 2014

One member of the committee said she had read that cameras do not reduce crime, but perhaps move it elsewhere. Also raised was the cost of the overall hardware, software, monitoring, and maintenance paired with the question of whether that money might be better spent hiring people (perhaps policemen) to walk around downtown, offering a physical presence.

Philosophical issues include, where does the data go and how is it protected? Is this invasive to the public and to privacy? Who is liable if there are resultant lawsuits?

Michelle Hummel made the point that an ambassador program is being considered, which would put people on the street helping visitors and looking for issues that might need to be responded to by the police.

Those representing the group pointed out that police already have recruitment issues and hiring more police may prove difficult. They also said that this approach would be more cost-effective in the long run, after the initial outlay. As for cameras around downtown, they made the point that many building owners already have camera systems and are providing footage to the police on request. Iliana made the point that the group would like to see action on the idea sooner rather than later and that business owners need help now.

In the end, it was agreed by all that the city needs to express an interest in being a partner in this project if it is to happen. The police also need to be on record with their support. If the support of those two groups were in place, the committee seemed willing to entertain the possibility of providing financial support.