New construction in Como makes way for curbs, streetlights and better sidewalks. But residents have also noticed the installation of what is an unwelcome new guest to some.
The Fort Worth Police Department installed four license plate reading cameras, and code compliance installed 13 cameras in the historically Black neighborhood in an effort to make the neighborhood cleaner and safer.
Funding for the improvements and the cameras came from the Neighborhood Improvement Program, a pilot program where the city invests around $3 million from a half cent municipal property tax to build up the safety and infrastructure of a neighborhood in need. But with the cameras, what started as an effort to find a solution to the neighborhood’s illegal trash dumping problem turned into a debate about safety, privacy and police overreach.
Some Como residents were concerned that unless crime was proactively tackled, the neighborhood might come to be defined by its occasional shootings. Others felt uneasy about being watched by officers they don’t trust.
Leon Reed, a defense attorney who lives in Como, said he thinks camera surveillance is an invasion of privacy.
“Even though you’re in a public place where you go on a daily basis, daily routines can establish things about you that are meant to be kept private,” he said.
But Como resident and business owner Elouise Burrell said protecting her safety was the biggest priority.
“I can understand why, to a certain degree, some people might be concerned, but I also have a very similar sort of opinion which is, ‘Well if you’re not doing anything, why does it matter to you?’” Burrell said.
Cameras used for police monitoring initially came to Fort Worth in 2016 and have since contributed to lower crime rates in pilot-tested pockets of the city, police said in an email response to questions from the Star-Telegram. Now there are about 440 cameras that range in function: some allow police to actively monitor crimes as they happen and others are less proactive, reading license plates to flag stolen vehicles or wanted persons. Camera placement can change based on investigations every few weeks.
Some cameras are in high-traffic areas like West Seventh, but in residential areas many are being installed through the neighborhood improvement program. They’re offered as a solution toward any given neighborhood’s crime problems. Each of the participants in the neighborhood improvement program before 2020 has about 20-30 cameras, according to police. All are majority minority communities: Northside, Ash Crescent, Stop Six and Rosemont.
Como is the first community to have a notable debate about the cameras. After about six months of discussion, the original proposed number of 20 cameras was lowered to the four cameras installed by police. Some Como residents said the increasing division between people of color and police in the last couple of years made the debate different this year.
Cameras in communities of color
Reed said he’s defended clients who were stopped and searched by police based on footage from surveillance cameras.
Sometimes what’s recorded can be misinterpreted: two neighbors shaking hands could look like a drug deal that is compelling enough to motivate a search, he said.
“Pull them over a mile up the road when you weren’t there; that doesn’t do anything for bettering police and community relations. In fact that kind of activity creates more animosity,” Reed said.
The Fort Worth Police Department has received criticism on several occasions for its interactions with residents of color. After Jacqueline Craig called police in 2016 to complain that neighbors assaulted her son, she and her daughters were arrested. That sparked outrage and the formation of the city’s Race and Culture Task Force. In 2019, Atatiana Jefferson was shot and killed by officer Aaron Dean, who’s awaiting a Nov. 16 murder trial.
Reed filed an open records request with the police department to see where cameras were located and if they were disproportionately in communities of color, but police said they couldn’t give out the exact location of the cameras for safety reasons, he said. Instead they responded that close to 70% of cameras are in majority minority neighborhoods.
Previous court rulings have established privacy as a right that favors the rich and largely white, according to a 2017 report by The Century Foundation on the disparate impact of surveillance. Historically, national courts have ruled there’s a more reasonable expectation of privacy in homes in the suburbs than in thin-walled subsidized apartments or behind a high rise building’s office door.
Familias de Rosemont president Fernando Peralta said he and most of Rosemont’s residents felt uncomfortable with cameras when police suggested them at their meetings for the 2020 neighborhood improvement program.
In the majority Hispanic neighborhood, undocumented residents are concerned that cameras could be used to track them, Peralta said.
“That’s a fear,” Peralta said. “I don’t know what the data is being used for.”
Protecting the vulnerable
Burrell, the Como resident and business owner, has lived in Como all her life. Her family owns a strip of businesses called Chamberlin Plaza on Horne Street. She cares for her elderly father full time and said she was concerned about crime in Como, particularly along Horne Street.
She said she approved of the cameras being installed.
Many of the people who argued against the cameras were men, Estrus Tucker, moderator of the Como Leaders Council said. While many who argued in their favor were elderly or families with young children.
“I’m going to err on the side of the most vulnerable,” Tucker said. “I’m going to err on the side who have concerns for their safety and well being, who want the police to respond if they call.”
At neighborhood improvement meetings, police have spoken highly of the efficacy of the cameras, which won some residents, including Burrell and Tucker, over.
Crime in Stop Six decreased by 32% since May 2016. In Ash Crescent the rate decreased by 18% since 2017, and in Northside it decreased by 23%, according to a Neighborhood Improvement Program presentation in March. All of the neighborhoods have cameras.
In Stop Six, District 5 council member Gyna Bivens said people overwhelmingly supported the cameras when they were suggested as part of their neighborhood improvement plan in 2017.
“Truth be told, nobody really wants to live in a community where they don’t feel safe and where criminals go unchecked,” Bivens said.
Bivens said she hears requests from leaders in Stop Six and the surrounding communities to move cameras to the outside of their buildings or to their streets.
Most recently, Las Vegas Trail has installed several license reading cameras from a company called Flock and have reported a 22% drop in the crime rate this year. They’ve incorporated several other measures to tackle crime, such as focusing on developing relationships between officers and residents, said Willie Rankin executive director at nonprofit LVTRise.
The first Flock cameras were installed after apartment complex managers expressed interest to keep their communities safe, Rankin said. Eventually a partnership was built between Flock, the police department and LVTRise to install a total of 11 cameras.
The cameras in Las Vegas Trail are only used to search for violent crime offenders not traffic violations like speeding, Rankin said. He said this made Las Vegas Trail residents feel more accepting of cameras.
Plans to expand camera use
Tucker said he believes the timing of the introduction of the cameras likely influenced the debate in Como. People are more sensitive to over-policing since the killing of Jefferson in 2019 and George Floyd in 2020, he said.
“It’s about trust. If the trust level was higher than the perception of over policing wouldn’t be as dramatic, and cameras wouldn’t be as big a deal,” he said.
The Police Department said it plans to expand the use of cameras. Every week, the department’s surveillance group Real Time Crime Center is responsible for 10 to 15 significant arrests, and many of them are for violent crimes, police said.
But many of the cameras in residential areas are being installed in majority minority communities first, which brings concern that prevention of crime might not be equitable and the number of Black and brown people arrested could be inflated, Tucker said.
“We don’t need to have more cameras in Como than we do in other comparable communities,” he said. “We don’t need to have more cameras in Black communities or brown communities than we do in working class white communities, so we need the data to support their rationale.”