Hamilton County Commission to consider $1.2 million grant to install more license plate readers

Staff photo by Olivia Ross / One of the Chattanooga Police Department's license plate reader cameras is seen along West 38th Street on Oct. 23.
Staff photo by Olivia Ross / One of the Chattanooga Police Department's license plate reader cameras is seen along West 38th Street on Oct. 23.

Drivers in Hamilton County could soon see 122 additional license plate reader cameras in their communities, as the Hamilton County Commission is scheduled Wednesday to consider accepting a $1.2 million state grant to purchase and install the cameras.

The Hamilton County Sheriff's Office applied for the grant, collaborating with some municipal police departments, including Chattanooga, East Ridge, Red Bank and Signal Mountain.

Of the 122 cameras, Chattanooga police would receive 35, the Chattanooga Times Free Press previously reported.

Aside from the Signal Mountain Town Council, which has tabled the decision to install the cameras due to privacy concerns, all the municipal governing bodies have approved accepting the grant.

Hamilton County Sheriff Austin Garrett said during a County Commission meeting Wednesday — ahead of next week's vote — that the cameras allow law enforcement agencies to solve crimes more efficiently.

"Basically, vehicles are entered into (the National Crime Information Center), which is the computer system used for stolen vehicles, wanted suspects, silver alerts, things of that nature," Garrett told the commission. "These license plate readers will hit on that system, giving law enforcement alerts on those."

Garrett said the exact locations of the 122 cameras have not been determined.

License plate reader cameras, under grant:

— Hamilton County Sheriff's Office: 59.

— Chattanooga Police Department: 35.

— East Ridge Police Department: 15.

— Red Bank Police Department: 7.

Source: Hamilton County

Costs associated with the cameras — including purchase, installation and warranty — are $1.18 million, according to documents attached to the resolution the County Commission is scheduled to consider Wednesday. That's all through the state grant and not local tax dollars.

(READ MORE: What you should know about automated license plate readers, as more Chattanooga-area agencies employ the location tracking technology)

Privacy concerns

Garrett said there are regulations in place to optimize privacy.

"The data that is collected is purged after 90 days. It can't be shared with a third party. The only thing we get are the hits that come back," Garrett said. "We can take vehicles that we believe are involved in any crime and run those, compare them to the data that's collected over 90 days."

During Wednesday's meeting, Commissioner Warren Mackey, D-Lake Vista, said he's concerned about the cameras invading privacy.

"It concerns me that government keeps coming into people's private lives more and more," Mackey said. "The rationale might sound good, but it concerns me. I'm going to have to think about this a while."

Garrett said he understands the concern but doesn't see the cameras encroaching on privacy.

"The fact of the matter is law enforcement can run tags. There's no privacy to your vehicle when it's in public," Garrett said. "What this does is it makes law enforcement more efficient. It's not digging into the owner of the vehicle. It's digging into if you're a wanted criminal."

The 122 cameras would add to readers already in Hamilton County's network of cameras. Garrett said every marked vehicle under the Sheriff's Office already has readers equipped.

(READ MORE: Aggrieved residents call for ballot measure to undo Chattanooga's Climate Action Plan)

"They're very productive. They're very efficient," Garrett said. "I would not stand in front of you if I felt like there was a privacy issue."

The sheriff added that there's state oversight of license plate readers, such as only being able to purchase from the one state-approved vendor, which is Motorola Solutions Inc.

"I readily acknowledge there's concerns with technology like this. We feel like our office has vetted it. The state's vetted it," Garrett said. "There's oversight with it."

Commissioner Steve Highlander, R-Ooltewah, said the cameras make communities safer.

"No one wants Big Brother overlooking, but this is for our safety and our well-being," Highlander said.

Commissioner Gene-o Shipley, R-Soddy-Daisy, said the cameras only violate the privacy of those breaking the law.

"It's a great idea," Shipley said. "In my opinion, the only privacy you're interrupting is people that probably need to be in jail or are going to go to jail anyway."

Contact Ben Sessoms at bsessoms@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.

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