You wouldn’t notice the cameras if you didn’t know what to look for—but once you see the first one, the others are easy to spot: black balls hanging from telephone poles like sinister Christmas tree baubles.
Rosia Parker noticed the camera near her house in Westhaven when the city installed it over the summer. She can see it from her balcony, which means, of course, the camera can see her balcony. “They had the area blocked off like they were doing big work,” Parker says, “So that’s what made me look at them like, ‘what are they doing?’”
Parker’s search for answers hasn’t yet turned up the resolution she hoped for. The situation raises serious questions about the relationship between Charlottesville’s law enforcement and the residents of the city’s public housing neighborhoods.
Parker asked City Council about the cameras during the public comment session of the November 2 council meeting. At the next meeting, city manager Tarron Richardson explained the practice, saying “That was one of our cameras. We move those periodically throughout the city based on requests from different residents and different community groups.”
That comment elicited surprise from City Council—“Oh yeah we need to discuss that more,” said Mayor Nikuyah Walker—and a retraction from the city, which later said via social media that the city “does not have a program related to citizen-requested security cameras.” The cameras are placed at the discretion of law enforcement, not residents.
At the January 6 City Council meeting, Parker and local civil rights attorney Jeff Fogel brought up the cameras again. Walker revealed that four cameras had been installed, three near Westhaven and a fourth near the entrance to another public housing neighborhood on Prospect Avenue. When asked about the purpose of the cameras, Walker said, “I can’t answer that, I don’t have the information.”
The placement of the cameras rankled Fogel and Parker. Westhaven and Prospect are majority black neighborhoods. “They’re clearly targeting black communities,” Fogel says.
“There are white neighborhoods where still, you have meth labs,” Parker says. “Why were Prospect and Westhaven the only two chosen?”
“The problem here is that there is a misperception that crime doesn’t happen in predominantly white areas,” said local resident Angeline Conn at the January 6 council meeting. “I’m not for state surveillance at all, period—but if you’re not extending the same surveillance to those communities, you’re being biased.”
Parker and Fogel feel the camera dust-up reveals the police department’s lack of willingness to collaborate with the communities it’s policing. “If the city really wanted to be transparent with the community, and especially the black community, they should at least have had a town hall meeting or something,” Parker says. “I appreciate being safe, but I would also like to know that I’m under surveillance. That’s my privacy.”
Fogel says the surreptitious installation of the cameras suggests the police department is more focused on punitive measures—racking up arrests—than proactive problem-solving. “What was the purpose of these cameras? Are they to get people arrested? I’d rather see them prevent the crime,” Fogel says. “The way to do that is, if you have cameras, you announce the heck out of them.”
City spokesperson Brian Wheeler responded to questions about the cameras in a brief statement. “The Charlottesville Police Department will continue to deploy cameras in the community in response to crime trends, shots fired incidents, robberies, and larcenies,” read part of the statement. “The cameras are for investigative purposes only and there is no active monitoring of the camera feeds.”
According to Wheeler, the only other area where the city maintains similar cameras is a four-block radius around City Hall.
The city did not answer a question about how it decided where to place the cameras. Also not addressed: if evidence from the cameras has been used to make any arrests.
John Whitehead, a civil rights lawyer at the Rutherford Institute, says that surveillance like this treads on shaky constitutional ground. “The police should be notifying anyone when they’re watching them,” Whitehead says, “because it implicates the Fourth Amendment, which dictates that before any government agent is doing surveillance on American citizens they have to have probable cause.”
Whitehead says that surveillance like this is not an uncommon practice for police departments around the country, and that municipal governments have the ability to intervene. “It’s the job of the City Council members to reel this in and tell them to stop it,” Whitehead says.
For Fogel, the cameras are one more example of what he calls untrustworthy behavior by the Charlottesville Police Department. He cited the department’s reluctance to release stop-and-frisk data and its 2018 purchase of a Dodge Charger—the same make and model as the car used to kill Heather Heyer—as recent examples of actions that can be interpreted as egregiously tone-deaf at best.
Parker, meanwhile, is determined to keep looking for answers. “I’m going to stay on them,” she says, “until we figure out what’s going on and why these cameras are here.”