Left: Tyre Nichols (AP Images) Right: SkyCop camera (Image courtesy of company)
At first, the camera that captured Tyre Nichols’ fatal beating panned too far to the right. Then, it corrected back to the left. Finally, the camera, mounted on top of a pole above the scene, zoomed in on the Memphis police officers brutalizing the young Black man. If it seemed like a person in some off-site control center was operating that camera live, that’s because someone was.
“It did not move on its own,” said Joe Patty, the former Memphis Police Department lieutenant who installed the camera that recorded Nichols’ Jan. 7 beating, which led to murder charges for five Memphis police officers. “That was not an analytical camera.… It would have to have been manually manipulated.” That’s exactly the idea behind the Memphis Police Department’s SkyCop surveillance program: At any time, a police officer or an employee at Memphis’ Real-Time Crime Center can tap into more than 2,000 SkyCop cameras around the city and pan and zoom as necessary to get a live look at the area. Each camera is also recording at all times, and its footage can be reviewed later. While some community leaders say the city-wide surveillance system helps deter and prosecute crime, others have concerns that the robust network of cameras invades citizens’ privacy and doesn’t actually make anyone safer.
SkyCop is a privately-owned Memphis-based company, but it has a concentrated law enforcement presence throughout Tennessee and in Alabama and Mississippi. The technology was invented in 2005 by a then-Memphis police officer who took advantage of new video compression technology to stream live video back to a central location. The idea was patented in 2006, and the officer eventually left the force to become a vice president at what became the SkyCop company.
“The only ‘good’ cop on that scene was the SkyCop.”
Now, the future of Memphis’ use of SkyCop cameras is up for debate. The program has strong advocates, including some people of color who say the cameras help reduce crime in their neighborhoods and hold police accountable for their actions, as in Nichols’ case. Van Turner, president of the NAACP Memphis branch, has been a strong supporter of the SkyCop program since his days as a Shelby County commissioner. “Candidly, the calls that I got [then] were not calls which stated, ‘Hey there are too many SkyCop cameras in the community. We’re being overpoliced,’” he told VICE News. “It was the opposite: ‘Hey we’re tired of crime, and we want more officers and we want more protection.’ In fact, the neighborhood associations had appealed to me to put cameras in their communities to deter crime.” One of those communities was Hickory Hill, the neighborhood where Nichols, 29, was killed while a SkyCop watched. Turner had fought for the installation of cameras in that community in 2016. “Glory be to God that a SkyCop camera was there to catch what happened,” Turner said at a January news conference just after the footage was released. Some community leaders, however, are still wary of the privacy concerns posed by a network of thousands of cameras deployed in residential neighborhoods that the police can tap into at any time.
“We're grateful that one [camera] was there and that the outcome was captured. We were able to find out the truth,” said Tikeila Rucker, political director for progressive organization Memphis for All. “But at the same time, that's almost an anomaly.… What about my privacy? What about my rights?”“It's easy to look at one success here where obviously the camera caught at least a portion of the beating that undoubtedly will be used as evidence to justify broader applications,” said former FBI Special Agent Michael German, who researches police oversight and reform at the Brennan Center for Justice. “The evidence is not exactly clear that [mounted surveillance cameras] are that effective in reducing crime or even in solving crimes that occur.”“Even a blind squirrel finds the nuts sometimes,” German added.A 2021 investigation by the Daily Memphian examined records of all crime investigations in the city and found that only a small percentage even mentioned the camera program and only one murder investigation in 2021 did. The city’s paper of record concluded that the cameras “rarely have helped in solving a crime.” Networks of surveillance cameras do not make Memphis unique, but its Real-Time Crime Center, into which all SkyCop video streams, does. Patty said the center was built with “all the bells and whistles.”
“Just imagine, it looks like it’s a national newsroom,” said Patty, who currently works as a security consultant for SkyCop and is fielding all media inquiries for the company. “There's a video wall with 30 50-inch monitors. It's all meshed together. There's about 22 computer stations there.” As dispatchers receive calls, employees can stream the video from any SkyCop in the city on those big screens, just like someone did on the night of the Nichols’ killing. “Everything that’s happening inside the Memphis Police Department is being watched there and can be controlled from there,” Patty said. Out on the streets of Memphis, the cameras’ blinking blue lights are ubiquitous, designed to be seen in hopes of deterring crime from occuring in the first place. “When we would put a SkyCop in a neighborhood or a business, wherever that went, there was almost an immediate drop in crime—almost immediately,” Patty said. The Memphis NAACP’s Turner also pointed to this deterrent effect. “I remember one constituent saying quite directly that when the cameras were placed in an adjacent neighborhood, ‘All the crime moved out of that neighborhood and over to our community because we had no cameras,, so we want cameras up as well.’”
But still, some activists say the potential dissuasion isn’t enough.“I can't say that the community feels any safer having them there than not,” said Rucker. “Just to have that blue light always flickering and flashing in your neighborhood… those blue lights instill a whole lot of fear in Black people, period.”“At this point, it’s more so about the transparency,” she added. “How much data is out there on those [cameras] that has been captured that we have no access to, because the individual didn't die, or wasn't as extreme of an incident in that situation?”It’s a common refrain when discussing SkyCop cameras: What else have they seen? “Although we have SkyCop cams, all of that footage is not being reviewed,” Memphis councilman JB Smiley told VICE News. And even when it is reviewed, like in Nichols’ case, Smiley said the Memphis Police Department often does not give city council access to the video. To that end, Smiley introduced an ordinance this month to require the police department to turn over SkyCop and body camera footage to the city council when there are allegations of excessive force or bodily harm at the hands of police. The ordinance was read for the second time at city council meeting last week and must be read publicly once more before being put to a vote.
“When you're dealing with body cams, a lot of times cams are turned off even though it's in violation of policy. A lot of times officers will move so that the cam doesn't show everything that's transpired,” he said. That’s exactly what happened in Nichols’ case; body camera footage was dark or blurred for minutes at a time, and three of the five officers even removed their body cameras while the scene was still active, according to police documents reviewed by Insider.“I think SkyCop cams have to be a part of the conversation,” Smiley said, “if we're talking about having an objective understanding of what transpired in [these] types of incidents.”It's a start, but Smiley said eventually he would like all SkyCop camera footage reviewed on a more regular basis, both for crime and police misconduct.The thousands of SkyCop cameras in Memphis aren’t going anywhere in the near-term, but Nichols’ killing has raised significant questions about the future of the program in a city grappling with the racial impacts of policing and how to hold its officers accountable.“The only ‘good’ cop on that scene was the SkyCop,” wrote Sharon Brown in an article for the Memphis Flyer. She’s a Black Memphian whose husband is a former Black police officer in the city.“It’s just funny,” she told VICE News. “They put the SkyCop camera there to catch criminals, and it really did catch some criminals when they beat Tyre Nichols.”Follow Nora Neus on Twitter. Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.