Neighborhood Watch Meets Big Brother In A Memphis Community

In Memphis, a civilian surveillance-camera program is meant to assist police. But some worry it's used to spy on neighbors

Illustration: Tara Jacoby
May 11, 2017 at 3:19 PM ET

After spending the week installing surveillance cameras on people’s homes for neighborhood watch groups across Memphis, Aaron James has had it. Before unwinding with a bottle of whiskey at a hotel room for a weekend staycation, James takes me on a Friday afternoon tour through what he says are some of the city’s more crime-ravaged neighborhoods he’s yet to outfit with cameras.

“This is the most violent neighborhood in the entire country,” he said after we turned left off Southern Avenue and exited the city’s upscale Cooper-Young District, where James was born and raised, and entered a neighborhood a few miles away, on the other side of some railroad tracks, literally. In this part of the city, Memphis’ 4th and Crump section, is a markedly different landscape than the boutiquey shops and restaurants lining the streets of Cooper-Young: boarded-up buildings, empty lots, a house that was crushed by a fallen tree and left to rot. From the driver’s seat, James pulled a gun from the floor of his beat-up, white GMC pickup truck and laid it on the seat between us.

“Hope you don’t mind if I keep my pea-shooter close just in case,” he said.

James, 53, has no background in law enforcement but has been involved in neighborhood-watch organizations since 1995. Some people in the area, he said, have compared him, unfavorably, to George Zimmerman, the Florida neighborhood watchman who fatally shot Trayvon Martin in 2012. It’s a comparison that James, who is white, scoffed at, calling it “bullshit.” Having spent most of his life in Cooper-Young, he shows his enthusiasm for his neighborhood on his T-shirt with the numbers “38104” printed on it, representing the neighborhood’s zip code. If he’s passionate about his neighborhood, his affinity for his neighborhood-watch responsibilities and the surveillance-camera program he introduced in 2015, one that’s helping to change the face of safety in Memphis neighborhoods, borders on eccentric.

“[The camera program] is the most important thing in my life right now,” he said.

And it’s not without controversy.

Not another Big Brother

James spearheaded the Cooper-Young camera program, he said, with the goal of helping cops solve crimes. It works like this: James provides surveillance cameras to people who agree to attach them to their homes or businesses. If there is a report of a crime, police will ask James if he had cameras in the area and whether they can see the footage specific to the time when the alleged crime occurred. James will then go through the footage and, if there is anything of interest, he personally delivers it to the police as to not “disrupt the chain of custody,” he said.

He’s helped expand the program to other neighborhoods throughout Memphis, like the Forest Lakes neighborhood – an upscale, gated community that has been hit by a spate of thefts and burglaries by, according to two residents, people from outside of the neighborhood. Similar programs have been implemented in cities like New Orleans, which has its own neighborhood watch surveillance-camera program that is far more elaborate than the one in Memphis, and arguably more potentially intrusive in terms of privacy. James said he’s in talks with a businessman, who he declined to identify by name, to expand similar camera programs to neighborhood-watch groups across the country. It’s part of an effort, he said, to create a nationwide network of surveillance-camera programs for concerned citizens who want to help the police.

For their part, the cops in Memphis generally like the idea of James’ program. I spoke with several Memphis police officers in the Cooper-Young neighborhood and they were each familiar with James and the surveillance cameras scattered throughout the city. None of the officers would go on the record because they are not authorized to speak with the media by the department, but the general feeling among police was that the cameras can come in handy when trying to solve a crime but they don’t think they necessarily do much to stop people from breaking the law. They do, however, help to keep the cops honest, one officer said; like criminals, police in the neighborhood don’t know where the cameras are so they just presume they’re everywhere — and they generally act accordingly, he said.

One officer raised issues about the privacy rights of the people who live in the neighborhood and how there can be a danger in giving so much surveillance power to neighborhood watchmen. James admitted that there’s nothing stopping him or any other neighborhood watchman with access to the feeds from watching the feed all day and using the footage however they see fit. What’s prohibiting someone from asking a neighbor with access to surveillance footage for evidence of possible indiscretion or a neighborhood watchman from sitting around all day and watching the feed in order to target “suspicious” people who happen to be walking by? Turns out, not much.

“Anytime you introduce technology there’s the potential for abuse,” said James, who describes the policies he’s put in place to better protect against abuse. “So we just develop the protocols that reduce that potential.”

He added: “We can’t create scenarios where privacy is being abused or anything like that. That’s taking the concept entirely too far.”

According to James, the only time footage from the cameras is retrieved or viewed is when police specifically ask for it. He told me he isn’t sitting in his house monitoring camera feeds waiting for action so he and his “pea-shooter” can save the day.

“I’m the last guy who wants to be Big Brother,” he said. And if you don’t believe him, just read the bumper sticker on the back of his truck – the one that quotes James himself: “I recognize no authority over myself greater than my own, and refuse to support anyone else’s delusions to the contrary.”

Some of the recent crimes James said he and his neighborhood watch group have helped solve include a bike theft that resulted in the arrest of a man who, he said, was later linked to a burglary, a robbery and a few other low-level thefts.

“Even though all we did was provide footage for the stolen bike it was used to help solve all those other crimes,” he said.

He proudly recalled another incident that was caught on his surveillance system: “A young lady was gullible enough to give a ride to a couple of thugs in the middle of the night and they wound up carjacking her…we had the whole thing.”

‘It’s like he’s just waiting there’

Residents of Cooper-Young know about James’ cameras. As do some of the people who live in some of the surrounding areas and have to pass through the neighborhood.

“They fuck with me every time I walk through here, son,” said Will, a 21-year-old black man who lives in the high-crime neighborhood across the railroad tracks. Will, who declined to give his last name and admitted that he does have a criminal record, frequently walks through Cooper-Young on his way to work.

“This one dude, it’s like he’s just waiting there, just waiting for me and my boy to walk by,” he told me. “Every fucking day. You see the camera on his house. I know he just sittin’ there waiting for people from [my neighborhood] to come through.”

There are signs posted throughout the neighborhood warning of the surveillance, including a large sign on a chain-link fence bordering the railroad tracks, where they can’t be missed by those entering Cooper-Young from the poorer neighborhoods.

Although there’s no evidence that anyone in Cooper-Young was sitting around watching the feed of their surveillance camera waiting for “suspicious” people to hassle, some residents, such as Ben, a bartender at a swanky restaurant in Cooper-Young, is certain people like James and other members of the neighborhood watch are monitoring the camera feeds. Ben, who also declined to give his last name, acknowledged that there are people from poorer areas of Memphis who come to Cooper-Young to commit crimes, but questioned the overall effectiveness of the cameras, even if he doesn’t necessarily mind them.

“I don’t know that the cameras are doing much,” Ben said, adding that he still carries his own pistol for protection. “Somebody was held up at knifepoint in the deli parking lot not that long ago.”

A model on the Bayou

James, who said that he didn’t know what he was doing when he first implemented the surveillance, admits that his camera program is still in its infancy.

In New Orleans, Bryan Lagarde seems to know exactly what he’s doing.

In 2009, Lagarde, a former officer with the New Orleans Police Department, began his own community surveillance-camera program, Project NOLA. In almost eight years, the program has swelled to more than 2,000 cameras placed throughout the city.

Unlike James, Lagarde does perform real-time monitoring of his surveillance cameras, while tracking police scanners and other communication tools used by first responders to identify where crimes are taking place. If Lagarde and his team hear about a crime, they go to footage beamed to their incident-monitoring center based at the University of New Orleans from cameras throughout the city to see if they have any footage that can assist police in apprehending the suspect or suspects.

Lagarde is upfront about the fact that both the mayor of New Orleans and the chief of the city’s police department are not onboard with Project NOLA. The city’s program runs much like James’ – it’s a collection of cameras that are not monitored in real time and can only be of use after a crime is committed. He said Project NOLA only responds to felonies and can be involved with up to as many as eight cases a day.

Lagarde said that city leaders see his program as competition.

“Our program, frankly, has been more successful than [a camera program run by the city] and the mayor takes offense to that,” he said.

But Lagarde added that the rank-and-file officers and detectives who are on the street investigating these crimes love the program.

“When we first started, in 2009 and 2010, we got to know all the detectives,” he said about the back-channel communications with the street-level cops it took to get Project NOLA off the ground. “We would reach out to specific cops. Now we have direct access to the switchboard. Now we do have official communications. The police chief and mayor may not like us, but at least they agree that our information is vital.”

The New Orleans Police Department agreed to an interview for this article but did not respond to a followup email prior to publication. This post will be updated with the department’s comments if any are provided.

Back in the gated, upscale Forest Lakes neighborhood in Memphis, James showed me how he installed the cameras and the computer program he’s used to monitor the footage at the home of Curtis E. Owens. Owens, a black 72-year-old retired resident in the area, was recently mowing his lawn one day when a car pulled up to his house as he was on his lawnmower on the other side of the home. Two kids, he said, ran into his open garage, stole some of his belongings and raced back to the car before he even knew what happened.

Several incidents like that, Owens said, prompted his neighborhood watch group to get in touch with James to outfit their neighborhood with cameras.

Not everyone in the neighborhood, Owens said, knew that there were cameras monitoring certain intersections. But, he added, not everyone needs to know.

The new season of Dark Net — an eight-part docuseries developed and produced by Vocativ — airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on SHOWTIME.