10 years. $10M. 2,100 SkyCop cameras. And a crime increase of 57%

By | Published Nov 18, 2021 | The Daily Memphian
10 years. $10M. 2,100 SkyCop cameras. And a crime increase of 57%

Since 2010, the City of Memphis has spent more than $10 million buying and installing more than 2,100 cameras and related technologies throughout the city.

A main purpose of the cameras — with their large white metal boxes adorned with flashing blue lights, placed high and overt on light poles and buildings — was their visibility and deterrent effect.

An investigation by The Daily Memphian found problems with the ubiquitous cameras:

  • The cameras’ deterrent effect is questionable, as violent crime rates in Memphis have risen consistently during the past decade, far exceeding state and national averages.
  • The cameras rarely have helped in solving a crime. This year, of the more than 74,000 crime incidents of all types reported, less than 3 percent of the investigations even mentioned the cameras, according to data analyzed by The Daily Memphian. Of the 228 killings in 2021, only one investigation mentioned the camera program, the analysis showed.
  • The cameras have been subject to very little scrutiny by city officials as millions have been paid to the one Tennessee-registered company, SCI Technologies Inc. — doing business as SkyCop — that has profited from the cameras’ proliferation. A recent contract earmarked a little under $3 million for technology that the city had already allocated to another company.
  • A former sergeant with the Memphis Police Department helped to invent SkyCop’s main camera product while on the city’s payroll to design the crime-fighting program that would install the product throughout the city. The former sergeant is now the company’s vice president.

The Daily Memphian’s investigation showed the camera program’s rapid growth and expenditures have not produced meaningful results.

In 2010, before MPD installed a majority of SkyCop cameras, the city reported more than 1,500 violent crimes per 100,000 people, a rate approaching four times the national average.

In 2020, with thousands of SkyCop cameras monitoring streets, the violent-crime rate was 2,351 per 100,000 — an increase of about 57% over 2010, and nearly six times the national average.

While crime over that period has gone up nationwide, it has spiked at higher rates in Memphis than elsewhere in the country.

Furthermore, cameras played a role in a vanishingly small number of MPD investigations.

According to data provided by MPD in response to a public records request, of the more than 74,000 crime incidents of all types reported to the department between Jan. 1, 2021, and Oct. 31, 2021 — about 2,000, covering fewer than 1,400 incidents —mentioned “SkyCop,” “Real Time Crime Center,” or “Blue Crush,” the name given to MPD’s data policing program, which includes camera feeds.

MPD reported 228 killings during that period, with the camera programs mentioned in only one investigation.

The programs were mentioned in only 5% of the nearly 4,500 aggravated assault cases — which would include most non-fatal shooting incidents — reported to the department during that period, and in only 13 carjacking incident reports — 5% of the department’s 275 incidents during that period.

The terms were mentioned in just 4% of the city’s more than 1,300 incidents of reported robbery.

The reasons for crime increases are multitude and varied. The pandemic, to cite one example, has been recognized as spurring crime rate spikes nationwide over the last year and a half, and criminologists have, for generations, argued in books and peer-reviewed research over what other factors play roles in provoking criminality.

But if the intent of installing a conspicuous, citywide camera system was to stem crime rates in Memphis, it didn’t succeed.

That has not stopped the City of Memphis from paying SkyCop for even more cameras and technology.

‘That’s news to me’

As part of a contract worth nearly $3 million, the City of Memphis renewed a deal in April with SkyCop to place gunshot recognition technology into the constellation of white camera boxes flashing blue lights throughout Memphis’ streets. GSR — an acronym for the technology — is designed to geolocate the specific coordinates of a gunshot, so that police can investigate where and why a gun may have been fired.

The contract should have raised eyebrows for two reasons.

First, the Memphis Police Department is already in the midst of an experimental three-year contract with ShotSpotter, the publicly traded GSR company that deploys its audio sensors in cities all over the country, including Memphis.

Second, it seems no one told SkyCop about the contract.

In a Sept. 9 meeting at SkyCop’s Oakhaven headquarters, both the company’s CEO, Charlotte Nuckles, and its chief technology officer, Lester Mikles, expressed surprise about the contract’s existence.

“That’s news to me,” Mikles said.

Even MPD’s Deputy Chief Joe Oakley, who’s in charge of the city’s Real Time Crime Center, had no idea about the contract during a meeting on the afternoon of Sept. 10.

One of the department’s public information officers, Sgt. Louis Brownlee, later explained via text message that the contract, while earmarked for GSR, actually “gives the ability to purchase” a number of items, such as more surveillance cameras, and that it was not necessarily limited to GSR.

“(SkyCop is) a vendor that has reach for a lot of items,” Brownlee texted.

The lack of clarity on how taxpayer dollars are being spent on this contract is representative of how the city has given extraordinary latitude to one company for its surveillance needs. In a little more than a decade, MPD has gone from owning zero surveillance cameras to having access to more than 2,100, virtually all of them provided by SkyCop.

Of the 2,100 cameras, about 1,300 have been bought by community groups and businesses that install camera boxes or mobile camera units at perceived trouble spots, and then donate them to MPD so that the department’s Real Time Crime Center — its data hub that analyses crime data — can access them. The city has access to a little more than 800 of the cameras.

Going back to 2010, an analysis by The Daily Memphian of 25 separate contracts between the City of Memphis and two companies connected to the SkyCop cameras — ESI Companies Inc. until 2014, and SCI Technologies Inc. thereafter — showed that the city has allocated more than $10.2 million in funding to SkyCop.

The company is not publicly traded, so its financial information is not publicly available. But with sizable investments from community groups and businesses that more than double the amount of SkyCop camera boxes in place throughout the city, the amount spent on the camera boxes in Memphis and surrounding districts is likely much higher than that $10.2 million figure.

Little has been done to scrutinize the effectiveness of these purchases. Instead, these purchases have been made to fulfill one main goal.

A former MPD sergeant who’s now SkyCop’s vice president, Kenneth Shackleford, did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story. But in 2016, he told The Memphis Business Journal that a motivation for SkyCop was that typical surveillance cameras tend to go unseen, to vanish into the city’s firmament.

“I thought, man, there are a lot of cameras out here, and eventually they seem to fade into the architecture of the buildings and don’t serve as a deterrent,” Shackleford told The Business Journal.

The SkyCop cameras would have the opposite effect. They would be seen. They would be everywhere.

To that end, both Shackleford and SkyCop have succeeded.

SkyCop’s origins

Founded in 1981, ESI Companies Inc. mainly provided audio solutions to customers, but eventually expanded to install technologies in jails, prisons, and hospitals around the country.

Lester Mikles joined the company in 1988 as a master electrician and became a kind of utility player; over years, he’d create whatever solutions the company’s customers needed.

As he described it, ESI began working in Tennessee when it landed a contract with Shelby County to install access systems— meaning the demanding entry and exit mechanisms to let people in and out — of the jail at 201 Poplar in Downtown Memphis. That contract provided contacts and opportunities, Mikles said. In the early 2000s, people in law enforcement began inquiring with ESI about camera systems.

In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, federal dollars began flooding to state and local police departments to increase their connectivity and expand how they used technology to patrol streets. Memphis was no different.

In 2003, MPD brass promoted then-patrolman Shackleford, who’d been working on CCTV systems for the department, to sergeant. They placed Shackleford in charge of designing and building a Real Time Crime Center — a centralized location, mirrored after similar projects in New York City and Los Angeles — that would be a hub for monitoring technologies overlooking the city. At the time, MPD had a dearth of surveillance cameras it could monitor. Shackleford approached ESI to change that.

“We were approached and asked if we could provide autonomous surveillance systems,” Mikles said.

Typically, surveillance cameras are fixed to one spot; they’re installed in one place, pointed in a specific direction, and someone watches its feed from another location. If an incident occurs within the camera’s view and there’s someone watching the camera when it happens, then the incident can be documented and reported. But if the incident happens beyond the camera’s view — or no one’s there watching the feed — then the camera’s useless.

“They didn’t need that. They wanted a camera that would sit out and look for things,” Mikles said.

And Shackleford wanted cameras that would be seen, so that scheming crooks and potential violent actors would know they’re being watched.

Though Shackleford was an MPD employee, he teamed up with Mikles and others at ESI to design the exact type of autonomous camera he wanted. On Aug. 1, 2006, Shackleford worked with Mikles, two other ESI employees, and Frederick Sexton, now a video analyst with the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office, to file an application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for their invention: the autonomous SkyCop camera. It would, according to the application, provide “a continuous presence and may be operated by remote control.

“The system may automatically record video and audio when certain audio, such as a gunshot, is detected,” it went on. “The system may automatically contact the authorities, or other remotely located devices upon the occurrence of an undesirable event.”

Meanwhile, Mikles and ESI played a role in helping Shackleford build out MPD’s Real Time Crime Center, located on Jefferson Avenue just east of Downtown, and to incorporate into it a massive wall of screens that would collate information sources such as maps, cable TV news broadcasts, and surveillance cameras. By 2010, when the government finally approved the SkyCop patent, ESI and MPD were interlocked.

The city began investing in an array of SkyCop cameras throughout the city.

While ESI dabbled in a variety of businesses stemming from its origins in access control and audio, the sector dominated by its new SkyCop invention and its partnership with MPD began to stand on its own.

As Mikles explained it, ESI began to have trouble in its other businesses. Its CEO at the time, Warner Speakman, began to seek opportunities for a selloff.

That’s how Charlotte Nuckles and her husband, Greg, got involved.

The entrepreneurial couple had experience in real estate, information technology and industrial design. Since 2008, they had been partners in The Diabetes Store, a diabetes supply shop in Sea Isle Park. But they were on the lookout for a new venture.

“I had seen the camera boxes around town,” Charlotte Nuckles said. “Who could miss those blue lights?”

So when they heard that ESI might be willing to sell the SkyCop brand, contracts, and technology as its own business, they jumped at the opportunity.

The Nuckleses took over — with Greg Nuckles as the company’s chief operating officer, and Charlotte Nuckles as its president and CEO — in 2014.

To hear it from Charlotte Nuckles, their initial years were rocky.

“We couldn’t pay ourselves,” she said.

But a shift in how cameras were funded helped to bolster the company — and turn SkyCop into a Memphis institution.

Buy-in from the community

SkyCop today appears to concentrate the majority of its business in Memphis and the surrounding region. This is a curiosity among players in the business of selling technologies to police departments.

Since 1996, ShotSpotter, for example, has grown from a small company with a few gunshot-recognition contracts based out of San Francisco’s East Bay area, to a public company, traded on Wall Street, with contracts in thousands of police departments nationwide.

Axon Enterprise, the Arizona-based company that provides Tasers, body cameras, and related technologies to police, had a similar — and exponentially larger — trajectory: It began with a few contracts, and expanded geographically. It’s now valued at more than $10 billion, with products sold to police departments around the world.

SkyCop is different. Apart from a handful of contracts in places like Toledo, Ohio — where, earlier this year, representatives of the city’s police department told television news station WTVG that its technology is only partially functional — the company has stuck to southwestern Tennessee.

One reason is that local communities have bought into Shackleford’s belief that conspicuous cameras can reduce Memphis’ significant crime problems.

After the affluent community of Belle Meade, just north of the Memphis Botanic Garden, experienced a spate of break-ins in 2015, neighborhood organizers lobbied the city to install SkyCop cameras.

They offered a funding innovation.

Rather than rely on taxpayer dollars to pay for the camera installations, neighborhood residents would pony up the funds— more than $140,000 — and donate the cameras to the city via the Memphis/Shelby County Law Enforcement Foundation.

City Council approved the donation and installations in January 2016. And when Belle Meade residents publicized that those cameras were used by MPD investigators to solve a break-in, neighborhood organizers in dozens of communities throughout the city jumped to follow Belle Meade’s lead.

Jean McInerney is one of them.

A lawyer by education and banker by trade, McInerney lives in Yorkshire, an affluent neighborhood near St. Francis Hospital, bordered by Park Avenue and Quince Road on the north and south, and Estate Drive and Interstate 240 on the west and east.

In February 2017, as McInerney scrolled through Nextdoor, the citizen-led community app, a woman in her neighborhood posted about Belle Meade and the possibility of buying SkyCop cameras for Yorkshire.

“I was intrigued,” McInerney said. “There were some incidents in the neighborhood that we found concerning — a negative trend that we wanted to nip in the bud.”

So she and another Yorkshire resident, Realtor Laurie McBride Connors, did some research. They went all in.

“It went from, ‘Let’s get two or three cameras’ … to, ‘Let’s work on a complete perimeter plan’ ” to surround the neighborhood with SkyCop cameras, McInerney said.

They worked together to raise $140,000 and consulted closely with SkyCop executives and Joe Oakley, who was then the precinct commander at MPD’s Mt. Moriah Station, near Yorkshire.

“Lori and I met with him and he made a presentation,” McInerney said. “We said, ‘Do you think cameras are effective in deterring crime? If you think so, tell us why, and if you don’t think so, thank you very much, we won’t bother raising any more money. We’ll go find something else to do.’ And he was very persuasive and very positive about the benefits.”

So Yorkshire went forward with buying 14 SkyCop camera enclosures for the neighborhood.

Under the agreement, the Yorkshire neighborhood group —initially organized as individual donors, and later established as an incorporated community association — would get the benefit of a tax deduction. They would donate the equipment, which would feed into the Real Time Crime Center, and pay for one year of maintenance costs. The city would be responsible for funding any maintenance going forward.

Overall, McInerney is happy with the decision to install the cameras.

“I think it’s been an extremely helpful part of neighborhood security,” McInerney said.

Burglaries have decreased in Yorkshire, she said, and while the number of reported thefts from motor vehicles has never been high — seven or fewer per year, she estimated — she said that those break-ins have slightly decreased despite upticks in other neighborhoods.

“I’m very glad that we’ve made the commitment and went ahead and got the assets.”

But McInerney emphasized that cameras are merely one part of a much-expanded neighborhood watch program in Yorkshire.

People in Yorkshire, she said, take crime very seriously: Residents within the community have begun actively getting to know their neighbors, installing home or business security systems and exterior lighting, improving environmental design and maintenance to make break-ins more difficult. They’ve built fences to keep intruders out, bolstered door locks, and communicated regularly with law enforcement.

The change in Yorkshire hasn’t been limited to installing cameras.

McInerney is interested in buying more cameras for the neighborhood. But they may not come from SkyCop.

If she has any reservations, she said, it’s that camera footage is difficult to obtain, and that she’s unclear if more in-your-face camera boxes are needed to keep conspiring criminals out.

As an example for possible future camera purchases in Yorkshire, she cited a neighborhood watch program in the Cooper-Young neighborhood using Ring cameras that residents can readily access.

When Yorkshire makes the move to buy more cameras, McInerney said, they may also look into “covert” cameras.

While McInerney is content with Yorkshire’s camera program, she emphasizes that any crime reduction is due largely to the community’s increased vigilance.

The movement to install cameras brought community members together to communicate and share information when crime happens. In Yorkshire, when people in the neighborhood see something, they say something.

“Cameras don’t make you immune to crime,” she said.

Say something

When the neighborhoods with the highest property values started to get SkyCop cameras — because they could pay for them — Memphis City Council developed the Neighborhood Sentinel Program in 2016, which uses taxpayer funding to allocate cameras to less-affluent areas.

There’s been controversy surrounding these additional purchases, related to where those cameras are placed, and how decisions are made about locations.

That’s been an issue with surveillance placement in Memphis since the outset of the Real Time Crime Center.

<strong>Josh Spickler</strong>
Josh Spickler

“This is a data problem, first and foremost,” said Josh Spickler, executive director of Just City, which advocates on behalf of families and neighborhoods ensnared within the criminal justice system. “We, the community, have no real way to measure the effectiveness of a program like SkyCop. We don’t know what kind of data these cameras and devices capture, and we probably don’t have access to the kinds of comprehensive crime data that the police and other policy makers have. Consequently, we can’t compare before and after or measure any potential progress.”

One thing is clear, however: The City of Memphis is unified in its pursuit of cameras to fight and deter crime.

Recently, the city bought 1,000 surveillance cameras that will replace older camera models at parks, libraries and community centers throughout the city. These cameras will be located at city-owned facilities, which differs from the 2,000 SkyCop cameras in Memphis that are in neighborhoods and businesses as well as some city facilities.

In a meeting with The Daily Memphian at MPD’s Real Time Crime Center, Deputy Chief Joe Oakley — who leads the RTCC — dismissed the comparison of 2010 to 2020 crime statistics in favor of more recent trends that show the city’s overall crime rate has decreased about 3% from 2020 to 2021, and that homicides specifically are down 5% during that same period.

Oakley is a proponent of SkyCop’s offerings — and interested in working with the company on any of its technologies — whether it’s cameras, license plate readers, or the company’s GSR technology, which may offer advantages to ShotSpotter because SkyCop’s GSR tech can hone in, with video, on locations where gunshots are identified.

But when pressed about the importance of data policing — and its placement in the hierarchy of crime-fighting tools at the city’s disposal — Oakley mirrored some of McInerney’s comments about having community members say something about crimes that occur when they see something. Neighborhood Watch programs work, he said.

And when it comes to deterring the most serious crimes — homicides and shootings — his suggested approach was surprisingly low-tech and traditional. It didn’t involve cameras.

“The key is, we need to get stolen guns off the street,” Oakley said. “And then another key is to get to our citizenry to stop leaving guns in your cars overnight. Or unsecured while you’re at the mall. Because that stolen gun will be used in a crime, which includes robbery, aggravated assault and homicide.

“Then there are other things, like leaving your car unattended, if someone goes to a gas station and they get gas but they go inside to pay and they leave the car running and we have a criminal steal the car, well then they’re going to use that car in another crime,” he said. “No one deserves to be the victim of a crime but, unfortunately, we have crime in this country and we should be on guard at all times.

“Don’t leave your car running unattended,” he said. “Don’t leave your car unlocked at night with your gun in it, or go into the mall and leave your purse in your car in broad daylight where the suspect can see it because they’re going to break your window out and steal your purse. So we all have to be responsible citizens to prevent a crime.”

In Oakley’s office, he walked over to a framed poster of Barney Fife — the fictional deputy sheriff of Mayberry, North Carolina, in the classic 1960s situational comedy television series “The Andy Griffith Show.” Fife’s face on the poster is emblazoned with a text bubble saying, “Not much gets by me!” surrounded by the words “NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH AREA: SUSPICIOUS ACTIVITIES REPORTED.”

Oakley then motioned to a table displaying decades-old Memphis public service posters answering the questions “Who do I tell?” and “What do I say?” in response to citizens witnessing crime.

“We were putting these posters out in the ’80s and ’90s,” he said. “If you look, we’re talking about good door and window locks. We’re talking about cleaning up your homes with good lighting. Trimming your bushes and hedges. Putting your house number visible for the police and fire department.

“These were things that we were doing decades ago and we’re still doing it now,” he said. “It’s the same message. We’re just updating.”

“We want our citizens to be responsible,” he went on. “Be a good witness. Be our eyes and years.

“That’s how you’re going to prevent and deter crime.”

Daily Memphian staff writers Bill Dries and Yolanda Jones contributed to this story. This story was completed with support from the McGraw Fellowship for Business Journalism at The Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York.

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