Valarie Brown has mixed feelings about the police.
She grew up in Columbia, Tenn., during the Civil Rights Movement — a time and place when, “you sort of tiptoed around when police were around because you didn’t want to be thrown into jail or wind up missing or whatever,” she says.
Since then, she’s interacted with officers who were cordial and ready to let her off with warnings.
Her past husband’s job moved her all around the Volunteer State, before she finally landed in Nashville’s Haynes Park neighborhood in 1976. This was after government officials decided to run the interstates through Nashville’s Black communities. The residents around her were mostly 20-somethings who worked as teachers, lawyers and nurses.
These days, most of the older Black residents are grandparents. White people, rental properties and a halfway house are now part of the neighborhood.
And after some debate, residents decided to add a new tool for the police to help with crime: license plate readers. The cameras snap photos of passing vehicles and save them to review when crimes take place. The Metro Council has mostly restricted LPRs across Nashville, but has debated an overhaul of those rules.
That’s where Haynes Park comes in, as a place where residents explored and decided to install them.
“Years ago, we went on vacation and came back and we had seen tire tracks coming from the street to my house,” she tells. “And luckily, my neighbor knew we were out of town and he approached him and told him, you don’t belong here.”
Police records show that over the last 5 years, a handful of incidents happen each month.
Some neighbors approached Brown to see if a license plate reader could be installed on an entrance near her house.
“And I was on board with it. My philosophy is I’d rather be safe than worry about somebody knowing who’s in my driveway, who’s coming to my door,” she says.
Some residents pitched in $3,500 to buy the devices.
Haynes Park resident Al Batson says he sees license plate readers as a helpful tool for security.
Haynes Park pulled into policy debate
Earlier this year, the city council was considering whether they should be allowed citywide. Some of Nashville’s neighbors, like Mt. Juliet, Belle Meade and Brentwood are already using them.
Initially, concerns about drag racing drove the proposal. But that soon became a footnote for councilmembers who believe cameras can help solve crimes. And while some are pointing to the historically Black Haynes Park area to make their case, some of the nuance to their situation has been missed.
In Nashville, the criminal justice system using LPRs has been framed in two ways.
Organizers have claimed Black people don’t want the surveillance tool.
While some councilmembers, like South Nashville’s Courtney Johnston, have said the opposite.
“You have a lot of Black communities that are saying, ‘We want this. Because we’re tired of the drive by shootings, we’re tired of the drug deals that are going on.’ They want more of a police presence there,” she said during one meeting.
The Brookings institute has pointed out that the desire for more police just means a desire for better service, like white communities receive.
And the backdrop of the LPRs discussion in Nashville is a moment when city police have shot several people this year, an officer pleaded guilty to manslaughter for a 2018 fatal shooting, and demands have been made for public safety to be re-envisioned.
Police killing Black folks rests in the back of Brown’s mind as she thinks of her teenage grandchildren.
“I do worry about the atmosphere of things going on now with my two grandsons getting stopped,” she says. “They’re not driving yet. But when they do, you worry about things like that because what goes on in other areas just could happen here.”
“You have people who have a legitimate concern about increased exposure to crime or violence,” says Winthrop University Professor Adolphus Belk Jr. “Then you have people who are concerned — also legitimately — about what the law enforcement response will look like, because they don’t know when they make that phone call if Officer Friendly is showing up or if it’s going to be a warrior cop.”
Belk Jr. examines the different viewpoints of how Black people.
”So there are people who, in the spirit of Frederick Douglass or early [Martin Luther King Jr.], are egalitarians. They believe in this country,” he says. “They believe in its core principles, but think that racism and injustice undermine this country.”
He says participation in elections doesn’t capture the diversity of ideology within Black communities.
A deeper discussion of neighborhood needs
If we dig back into the archives, it’s Haynes Park residents who led the charge in ensuring their safety. They created a community watch group in 2004. They’ve looked to city officials for help. And then they took another step with the license plate readers.
But now that the cameras are up, some aren’t sure it’s the best way to address the root of their problems.
Gina Coleman is a neighborhood leader. She says the watch group will reach out to Gideon’s Army, a violence reduction group, for input.
“The next generation needs to be reached out to start getting into this neighborhood, organizing things,” Coleman says. “So they can have a safe place to live. We want to pass this down. We want to pass down a legacy system where we’ve already put things in place. All they have to do is sustain it, manage it, make it better.”
Residents like Brown says they want investments ranging from sit-down restaurants to sidewalks. That won’t solve all the problems, but disadvantage in a neighborhood does lead to violence — no matter the race of the residents.
“And I’d like to see the council people come out here and talk,” she says, sitting on a bench across from the LPR. “You know, during election time, they are walking up and down here asking us questions. But the moment the voting is done, they’re in office.
“Where are you?”