Drivers will soon see 122 new license plate reader cameras on Hamilton County roadways, as the County Commission unanimously accepted a $1.2 million state grant to purchase and install the cameras.
On behalf of municipal police departments in Chattanooga, East Ridge, Red Bank and Signal Mountain, the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office applied for the state grant earlier this year.
Among the 122 cameras, Chattanooga police would recieve 35, East Ridge police would receive 15 and Red Bank police would receive seven. The Sheriff's Office will receive 59 for the unincorporated parts of the county.
Signal Mountain police are set to receive the remaining six, but the Town Council has tabled the decision to accept the grant due to privacy concerns.
Prior to Wednesday's unanimous decision, Hamilton County commissioners voiced concerns over privacy as well.
During Wednesday's commission meeting, Hamilton County Sheriff Austin Garrett said the cameras do not invade privacy but are tools law enforcement can use to mitigate crime.
"It's not overreach," Garrett said. "One of the reasons I was elected by the people in this county was to be efficient, be a visionary and implement ideas and methods to reduce crime. This does that."
The technology and the vendor, Motorola Solutions Inc., has been vetted by both the Sheriff's Office and the state, Garrett said.
"I understand concerns. The state wouldn't approve this if it wasn't legal," Garrett said. "I, as your sheriff, No. 1 would not propose this if I felt it goes against our vision at the Sheriff's Office, which is leading the way of law enforcement."
Every patrol vehicle with the Sheriff's Office is equipped with a license plate reader camera, Garrett added.
County resident Rick Walser spoke at Wednesday's meeting, opposing license plate readers.
"Can't we use that money on something other than a citizen surveillance tool that's going to track every movement?" Walser said. "It can be more cars, more police, something, but don't implement this."
The grant can only be used for the readers, the sheriff said.
"The grant is very specific on what it can be used for," Garrett said. "This is not county taxpayer money. It's state money, federal money."
Walser is involved with a group called Save Chattanooga, a group that is attempting to overturn Chattanooga's Climate Action Plan, a nonbinding initiative to reduce the city's carbon emissions.
Commissioner Chip Baker, R-Signal Mountain, said during Wednesday's meeting he sees the cameras as an extension of what deputies already do: read and run license plate numbers.
"You're just automating that process," Baker said.
Residents shouldn't expect privacy when they're in their car in a public space as they do in other scenarios, Garrett said.
"You're in the public eye. Your car's in the public eye," Garrett said. "You have no expectation of privacy on that tag. Inside your car, you do. Inside your home, you do. On your person, you do."
Despite his views on license plate readers, Garrett appreciates the concerns of residents, he said.
"I love to hear opposing views on things," Garrett said. "I appreciate and thank them for their time to come down and exercise their right to voice their opinion."