System ‘can shoot fleas off a dog’

Four 42-inch, high-definition monitors are mounted on a wall in the public safety office at Atlantic Station. Shoppers can see them through the glass doors. The monitors show people walking through the shopping center, sitting on benches, eating outside. Feeds are taken from nine high-tech cameras that can spin 360 degrees, watching from rooftop to ground.

While video surveillance in a retail setting isn’t new, at Atlantic Station it’s no longer secretive. In fact, with the advent of digital technology, shopping destinations such as this one want people to know exactly what it has.

And it is high-powered stuff.

“You can zoom in so far that you can see the color of somebody’s eyes,” said Santana Gauthier, Atlantic Station administrative officer.

In a world continually on edge and mindful of the potential for disruptive activity in large public settings, metro Atlanta shopping centers have taken advantage of improved technology and upgraded their surveillance systems in an effort to ensure a secure environment for customers and employees.

When the Korean grocery store Mega Mart opened at Gwinnett Place Mall last October, its owner showed off a state-of-the-art security system intended to allay safety fears. The Simon Property Group, which operates the Mall of Georgia, Lenox Square and Phipps Plaza, among others, has upgraded its entire communications network and has a former member of the FBI’s joint terrorism task force overseeing it.

Atlantic Station’s technology enhancement was fueled, in part, by community concerns that the mixed-use shopping center was not safe at night. Zurn and others look for people who linger too long in one area, for large crowds that may cause trouble, for individuals who have been told not to return to the private shopping center.

Tom Miles, Atlantic Station vice president and general manager, said every mall and shopping center he has worked for has had camera coverage. At this particular mall, he has been surprised by how much the cameras can see. Yet he finds them useful in spotting potential situations before they become major issues, from a traffic jam to a possible fight.

“This camera can shoot 400 yards; it can shoot fleas off a dog,” Miles said. “It’s really powerful. It’s a little like Big Brother, but I think it’s a benefit.”

With all of this video surveillance at hand, privacy concerns remain an issue with some shoppers. Matthew Kelley and Maya Collins, walking through Atlantic Station, feared that the surveillance could lead to racial profiling.

ACLU senior policy analyst Jay Stanley, while concurring that minorities are disproportionately targeted through video systems, said the extent to which surveillance can be used invades everyone’s freedoms.

“If a security guard were to follow you, you wouldn’t like it; you would be creeped out,” Stanley said by phone from Washington. “Technology is moving us to the point where everybody’s watching us all the time.”

Atlantic Station, in addition to its nine newer ones, has 200 lower-tech cameras on the property. Trained only in common areas, the cameras are there to watch the property, not look for shoplifters or monitor specific stores. Individual retailers are responsible for their own security, though the cameras can be trained on the door of a store if asked.

“Our goal is to make it a safe and secure environment,” said Ben Payne, Atlantic Station public safety director. “We don’t want to be invasive.”

For the most part, people passing through Atlantic Station on a recent day didn’t object to the cameras. Some were comforted by their presence.

“I think it’s wise,” said Rusty Paul, a consultant who works in Atlantic Station. “If bad folks know they’re being monitored in one area, but not another, they’re apt to be in the other area.”

In the past, companies were loathe to show their video footage, said Bob Carter, general manager for Iron Sky, the security system used by Atlantic Station and local governments in Norcross and College Park, among others. Its closed-circuit nature made it difficult to share with police or other agencies. Cameras were often poorly placed or captured grainy images.

Video cameras aren’t the only area in retail in which technology improvements have been made. The Simon Property Group said it has upgraded its entire communication network to better share information in the event of a disaster, natural or otherwise, and it has security leadership with specialized skills.

Russ Tuttle, vice president of corporate security and emergency management for Simon Property Group, is a former member of the FBI’s joint terrorism task force. He said recognizing a threat is key to security, and communication is imperative.

“If you don’t understand your risk, you don’t understand how vulnerable you are to your risks,” Tuttle said.

High visibility has become key to deterring crime of all sorts, Tuttle said, and cameras in the forefront are a means of sending that message as much as security guards on Segways.

Cameras are still meant to document crime, not necessarily prevent it. More often than not, according to Joseph LaRocca, National Retail Federation senior asset protection adviser, the video is used after illegal activity takes place, and not before.

ITC Security Consultants president Russ Lauria said videotaping might make some people feel safer, but the cameras themselves will not stop crime, a thought echoed by Carter of Iron Sky.

“Video by itself is only going to have a small impact,” Carter said. “It’s feet on the street. If you’ve got great video and no one’s using it, it’s not going to do much good.”

As for making the cameras visible to the public, Payne at Atlantic Station said he encourages shoppers to step in and watch the screens, and his offers have been accepted.

“I think it’s been very effective,” Payne said of the new technology. “We’re seeing a shift in momentum the way we want it to be. If the typical criminal knows he’s on camera, he’s going to go somewhere he’s not on camera.”