Efforts underway to improve security in Knoxville’s public housing

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) – Making public housing residents feel safe is a leading priority for Knoxville’s Community Development Corporation, but preventing crime is easier said than done. In Lonsdale Homes, the neighborhood has seen a string of drive-by shootings in recent years, most notably, the murder of Zaevion Dobson in 2015. It’s an issue that is prompting KCDC to consider something new – surveillance cameras.

“Drive-by shootings have been bad,” Carolyn Clement, Lonsdale Homes resident, said. “They’ve been really bad.”

Violent crime in Knoxville’s public housing neighborhoods is leaving families calling for solutions.

Clayton Wood, executive director of non-profit organization Thrive Lonsdale, says the answer is surveillance cameras.

“In KCDC properties right now, there’s an ongoing problem with violent crime,” Wood said. “It’s happening in the same places. I’ve been in Lonsdale now for six years and we’ve had a shooting every year in Lonsdale homes, and I would like to have a year without shootings.”

Research shows that cameras in subsidized housing have helped reduce crime in places like New York City, Baltimore, and Cincinnati. Knoxville Police Department Deputy Chief Gary Holliday says cameras in some KCDC facilities could lead to similar victories in Knoxville.

“I think cameras are a very, very good deterrent of crime,” Holliday said. “I think signage is a good deterrent. The more you can do to let folks in a neighborhood know that the police, while you can’t see them, they’re still there and they’re present and they’re going to be in the area and they’re going to be watching, I think that’s a good deterrent for folks who come in the area who try to carry out criminal activity.”

KCDC oversees a dozen family complexes and nine facilities for the elderly and disabled, managing a total of 3,500 units and 4,000 Section 8 housing choice vouchers.

“Cameras are definitely something that’s needed,” Ben Bentley, CEO of KCDC, said, “but you have to be strategic where you put them. We are working with Knoxville Police Department. It’s preliminary. We’re trying to identify funding to put cameras in some strategic points of our properties. We’re going to identify where we think, intersections or areas of properties, that have been prone to criminal activity in the past and we’re going to strategically deploy cameras in those locations.”

Bentley says he sees the need for cameras in areas with repeated crime, places like Lonsdale Homes and Montgomery Village. The purpose for cameras, he says, would be not just to deter criminal activity, but mostly to help law enforcement apprehend criminals who commit crime on KCDC property, many of whom are not KCDC residents.

“It’s very clear cameras can be effective in those cases,” Bentley said. “There’s a lot that we can do in the way of screening and evictions with our residents. It becomes more challenging when it’s folks from the outside coming in and committing some of these crimes.”

Bentley says the decision to install cameras in strategic locations ultimately comes down to one thing: money, but it’s something that he says he will try to include in the 2018 budget. KCDC would partner with KPD to monitor the cameras, after a criminal act has taken place.

Many people who live in Lonsdale Homes say cameras would give them a greater sense of safety in their neighborhoods.

“I think it’s a good idea,” Clement said. “We need them out here, because there are people who come through here and stay out here and there’ll be a whole lot of violence and we need the cameras to secure our residents and our family members out here.”

Others fear that cameras would lead to 24/7 surveillance, but Deputy Chief Holliday says that is not the goal and the cameras would not be monitored in real-time.

“We’re not Big Brother,” Holliday said. “That’s not the plan behind this. The whole purpose behind this is to let us better prepare, and to better respond and to better deter crime. That’s the whole purpose behind this. It’s not to watch what you’re doing.”

Some studies show that cameras only relocate crime to other areas, not eliminate it. Still, Wood says this would be a good thing for places like Lonsdale.

“I don’t want crime around kids, I don’t want it at schools, I don’t want it at playgrounds…I don’t want the kids in the Lonsdale Homes to feel scared to go outside because they might get shot by stray bullets,” Wood said. “So if we can move the crime away from these areas, where we’ve had shooting after shooting, I’d count it as a victory.”

Only time will tell how effective surveillance cameras will be for KCDC, but police hope at the very least, the increase in security will help bring residents peace of mind, knowing they have an extra layer of protection in their communities.

“There’s been some pretty high profile crime in those properties,” Holliday said. “The Zaevion Dobson case being the big one, but people deserve to have a sense of safety and security in their neighborhoods… no matter where it is.”

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