Aug 10, 2023 - Politics

Republican lawmaker puts pressure on Nashville's license plate reader vote

Illustration of a security camera topped with police car lights

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

If Metro Council does not approve an extension of the police department's license plate reader program, it could face another bout of state intervention.

Catch up quick: A temporary pilot program allowed Nashville police earlier this year to begin using license plate data, collected by cameras posted around the city, to investigate specific crimes such as missing persons cases, violent felonies, reckless driving and stolen vehicles.

  • The department has pointed to examples of LPRs advancing investigations.
  • Critics have bashed the program as an invasion of privacy and for disproportionately targeting minority-majority neighborhoods.

What he's saying: "LPRs are important law enforcement tools that help save lives and solve crimes," state Rep. William Lamberth, the House majority leader, tells Axios. "I would hope that any city would seriously consider using them to improve the safety of their community."

  • "If for some reason, cities do not take advantage of this life-saving technology, then we will probably reevaluate whether this is a local decision to be made there."

Why it matters: After a bruising legislative session that often found Metro and Republican lawmakers on opposite sides, Lamberth's comments indicate a truce is not imminent.

  • Metro is in the midst of three lawsuits against the state over laws that city legal director Wally Dietz calls unconstitutional overreach for singling out Nashville.
  • Lamberth says the issue is about supporting law enforcement.

State of play: Mayor John Cooper's administration hopes the council approves extending the use of LPRs following an initial test run. The Aug. 15 meeting is the last one of this council term, meaning if it gets deferred it will be up to the next mayor and council to decide.

  • The city's current LPR program includes regulations related to data storage, regular audits and reporting requirements to guard against racial bias. In an emailed statement to Axios, Cooper said the city implemented "common sense restrictions and privacy protections."
  • "No other city in Tennessee with LPRs imposes this degree of regulatory restrictions and safeguards, and a version imposed by the state may not have such protections," Cooper said. "Now is our chance."

The other side: "I think it should be a local decision," Metro Councilmember Bob Mendes tells Axios. "This is part of why my view generally is we should do what we locally think is in the best interest of the city."

  • Mendes says he is concerned that using LPRs puts the city on the slippery slope to even more invasive technology, such as facial recognition software, that could create a "surveillance state."

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