Lookout Mountain is looking at you: Cameras will capture every license plate that comes to town

Lookout Mountain is looking at you: Cameras will capture every license plate that comes to town

January 20th, 2014 by Tim Omarzu in Local Regional News

Foreman Doug Onby, bottom right, talks to Blake Downey, top center, as they run new power wiring for a traffic camera Friday at the corner McFarland Road and Scenic Highway on Lookout Mountain. Lookout Mountain Public Works employee Mike Blevins watches from below the ladder.

Photo by Tim Barber/Times Free Press.

Cameras on Lookout Mountain soon will record the license plate of every vehicle that ventures into the well-off residential enclave.

After a rash of summer break-ins by an organized gang of 10 Chattanooga burglars -- some of whom came armed -- residents on the Tennessee and Georgia sides of Lookout Mountain raised money to install automatic license-plate- reader cameras in a half dozen locations. A total of 238 people made large and small contributions totaling $88,000 to install the system.

"For this size community, that's huge," Lookout Mountain, Tenn., town consultant Dwight Montague said. "On Lookout Mountain, if somebody's house gets broken into, it's big news, because that hardly ever happens."

Automatic license plate readers have been installed in other upscale communities around the country.

Among the first were in Tiburon and Belvedere, Calif., two neighboring communities just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. A shocking slaying -- a 75-year-old Tiburon woman with no known enemies was fatally shot in the head on her front steps -- spurred the communities, where crime rates were low and killings were virtually unknown, to install the surveillance system.

Lookout Mountain has another similarity with the California communities: limited access. Only two roads lead to Tiburon and Belevedere, which sit on a peninsula that juts into San Francisco Bay.

"There's five ways you can get in and out of [Lookout Mountain]," Montague said.

Each location will get two cameras -- one for reading the vehicle's license plate and another for taking its overhead photo. A sixth pair of cameras will be placed at the four-way intersection at Scenic Highway and Lula Lake Road. The cameras, whose installation is being overseen by Chattanooga-based ERMC, will be split between the two states, with three in Georgia and three in Tennessee. They should be operational sometime in February.

Privacy concerns

Civil libertarians have raised privacy concerns about license plate readers, which use character recognition technology to translate images into license plate numbers and letters.

Some communities compare their license plate database to a list of "hot plates," or drivers with outstanding warrants. Other communities store license plate data for long time periods -- sometimes indefinitely.

"Hundreds of millions of these 'plate reads' are now amassed in ever-growing databases," warns the American Civil Liberties Union. "In the not-so-distant future, it could be possible to assemble permanent records of nearly everywhere each of us has driven."

In 2012, the ACLU says it "sent public records act requests to almost 600 local and state police departments, as well as other state and federal agencies, to obtain information on how these agencies use license plate readers." That resulted in a report titled "You Are Being Tracked."

Lookout Mountain's system isn't going to compare the license plates it captures to a hot list, said Police Chief Randy Bowden of the Tennessee side. The data won't be used for traffic violations, either, he said.

"It won't even be looked at unless we have a reason to follow up on [a crime]," Bowden said.

Data will be held for about 28 days, Bowden said, after which time the digital storage will fill up and be overwritten by new data. While private donations paid for the system, the database will be housed in the Tennessee side's police station, and the two cities will pay for ongoing electric and fiber-optic cable bills.

Bowden downplayed any privacy concerns, pointing out that malls and other retailers use video surveillance cameras in the parking lot and inside the store.

"It's just like going to Walmart," he said.

Statistics consistently show that small towns with limited access routes have significant decreases in crime when surveillance cameras are installed, said the Lookout Mountain Security Project fundraising letter sent to residents in November seeking donations.

"Don't come up here and steal our stuff, because we're going to catch you," Montague said.

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6651.