Since 2011, the city of Memphis has paid over $10M to install a system of surveillance cameras manufactured and operated by a company called Sky Cop.

With their blinding blue LED warning lights, these 24-hour witnesses give the city the feeling of beleaguerment. After sundown, you see them everywhere: downtown, midtown, in the eastern suburbs, hanging in the lower canopy, winking like jewels.

Surely a system of over 2,000 cameras monitored around the clock by the Memphis Police Department has an upside as crime-deterrants? In fact, no. Since the program’s inception, crime has risen by 57%. In 2021, fewer than 3% of police crime reports even mentioned the cameras. By the metrics of crime-fighting, they’re failures. 

Ironically, it was a Sky Cop that recorded the murder of fellow photographer Tyre Nichols by the police themselves. Perhaps only in this case could it be said that the program has been a success at detecting--not deterring--crime. 

Sky Cop is just one instance in a long history of the city spending disproportionately more money on policing than other categories. In 2021, for instance, the city spent $280M on policing and only $4.8M on housing and community development--58x the money policing neighborhoods than supporting them. 

In the scope of the city’s gargantuan police budget, Sky Cop is a negligible line item; however, it’s one that’s both conspicuous and ubiquitous. On virtually every streetcorner is a Sky Cop acting as a symbol of misplaced public trust and money in a police force that fails to both protect or serve us. They’re a token of what a city looks like when it puts all its hope in the police. 

In this series, I ironically depict these Orwellian eyesores as dreamy, innocent, and adorable. By reframing them like the defanged beasts of a Lisa Frank illustration, I hope to better depict the harsh truth about them. It’s difficult to look a fascist, racist police state in the eye. Maybe it’s more helpful to depict it as so deliciously, disgustingly cute that it causes you to reconsider what you feel about it. 

As for the technical process of making these photos, I create the washes of color by shooting flashes with colored gels directly into my lens. Maxing out the ISO creates grit and blown out shadows. Shrinking the aperture to as tight as f/55 creates strong bokeh that spills across the frame like bubbles. 

What could the city have done with the $10M+ it’s wasted on Sky Cop? Or, for that matter, the nearly $300M it spends on police every year? Funded schools? Paid reparations? Supported struggling neighborhoods instead of over-policing them? That question will remain unanswered for the time being. The city continues to invest in Sky Cop. 

This series is ongoing.