Atlanta police surveillance and its secret funders

For crime-fearing citizens, the announcement the city of Atlanta recently emailed reporters seems good news. The city is expanding its network of video surveillance, to the tune of $2.1 million.

"This announcement comes after the Reed Administration pledged to take additional measures to address crime throughout the city," read the statement.  Mayor Kasim Reed added,“The safety of our residents and visitors is a top priority for my Administration, and I am committed to providing every resource our police department needs to ensure that we keep criminals off our streets.”

But some civil liberties advocates aren't too pleased.The video network in question has Atlanta police monitoring not just city equipment but privately owned cameras as well.

And most of the $2.1 million in funding for what the news release lauds as a "public-private partnership" is coming not from the city but from "community partners." The city's share is just $450,000.

The Atlanta Police Foundation won't say who those partners are.

The Foundation says the private donations come from "residents living in the district (District 8/Buckhead)."  The statement thanks the Foundation, "neighborhood civic associations, businesses, and other stakeholders."

That all concerns Jay Stanley.  "When you provide money, you gain control," Stanley said.

Stanley works on privacy rights and free speech at the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, D.C., and he wrote a report a decade ago called "The Surveillance-Industrial Complex: How the American Government Is Conscripting Businesses and Individuals in the Construction of a Surveillance Society."

In a case like Atlanta's, however, he said the danger might be more that private individuals or companies get the city -- with all its government powers -- to do what they want.  And maybe what they want is not quite the same thing that the public wants.

"I mean if I want to protest outside a store," he said, "and that store is financing the police who are hassling me, that is a problem."

Furthermore, he said that leaves it to private interests to guide police resources, while the need may be greater in other neighborhoods. The announcement noted the new cameras will "enhance security in District 8 and the surrounding neighborhoods."

Credit: Lois Norder

Credit: Lois Norder

Stanley said if police need more money, the city should tax businesses and residents rather than accepting donations, and then distribute the resources the best way for the public at large.

Stanley raised no allegations of abuse in Atlanta.  And a spokeswoman for the city, Anne Torres, said his concerns are unfounded.

"Atlanta residents and business owners have the same fundamental interests when it comes to crime: prevent crimes wherever possible, and solve crimes quickly when they happen," she said. "Police officers monitoring live video feeds have been able to identify attempted car break-ins, theft and other crimes, and dispatch an officer to intervene. And in many cases both here in Atlanta and elsewhere, video recordings of a crime have been an indispensable tool to bring a perpetrator to justice."

In addition, she stated, the city is protecting all citizens while not raising taxes, and "APD has plans in place to put more officers in neighborhoods where incidents of crime are higher."

The private donations aren't the first. The city in 2012 announced a private gift to support its hub for video monitoring.  There, city police get the feeds from government and private cameras and use "smart" computer software to analyze the video.

It's called the Loudermilk Video Integration Center, after Atlanta businessman and benefactor Charlie Loudermilk and his family, Buckhead VIP's and philanthropists who donated $1 million to make it happen.

In an unrelated twist, Loudermilk, now retired, founded Aaron Rents, a company that faced accusations recently of enabling spying on customers by its independent franchisees, via monitoring software on computers they rented.

About the Author