Aug 15, 2023 - News

Nashville Council to decide fate of license plate readers

Photo illustration of a Metropolitan Nashville Police cruiser with lines radiating from it.

Photo illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios. Photo: Terry Wyatt/Getty Images

The Metro Council will consider at its meeting Tuesday night whether the police department can continue using license plate readers to solve serious crimes in a final test of outgoing Mayor John Cooper's administration.

Why it matters: There's a sense of urgency for the administration, in part because it's a complete unknown how the new, apparently more progressive, council taking office soon will address LPRs.

  • Nashville police chief John Drake says they are vital tools to solve car thefts, gun offenses and other crimes.
  • Critics say LPRs disproportionately target minority-majority neighborhoods and are a violation of privacy for law-abiding citizens.

Catch up quick: Council approved a six-month trial run for LPRs, and this vote will determine if police can keep using the technology. When the trial run was approved, council added strict rules regarding which crimes can be investigated with the technology and how the data acquired from the cameras is to be stored.

What he's saying: In a letter to council on Friday, Drake pleaded for the program to be extended. He says the data shows LPRs are keeping the community safer, while also arguing it's a commonly used policing tool.

  • According to Drake, 87 stolen cars were recovered and 112 people were arrested on felony charges due to LPRs. He said 90 law enforcement agencies in Tennessee use them.
  • Drake reminded council he is a Nashville native who wouldn't use a strategy that would "harm families or neighborhoods."
  • "I have absolutely no doubt that LPRs will make Nashville a safer place," Drake said.

The other side: Metro Councilmember Dave Rosenberg, one of the most vocal critics of the LPR pilot, says the data doesn't support the program. He says the cameras have collected 71 million license plate numbers, but only produced approximately 75 traffic stops.

  • "Not only does MNPD's data show just how ineffective LPRs are, but everyone on council is aware of the deficiencies with the ordinance that have been discovered during the pilot," Rosenberg tells Axios. "It would be irresponsible to write a blank check for LPRs without first correcting those shortcomings at the least."

What we're watching: Nashville politics is centered on the mayor's race, making Councilmember Freddie O'Connell's vote on whether to renew LPRs especially noteworthy.

  • If O'Connell votes no, as he did on the pilot project in December, it would be in defiance of the person who will be Nashville's top cop going into the next administration.

Of note: Top Republicans in the legislature are keeping tabs on the council vote. State Rep. William Lamberth, the House majority leader, told Axios last week he would consider legislation to take away local governments' ability to approve LPRs if council votes no.


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