12K cameras to give Atlanta police broader window to city

Atlanta police are bolstering their reach and capabilities by continuing to integrate cameras into their strategy.

Police plan to have as many as 12,000 cameras giving crime analysts a window to the city.

With the aid of the Atlanta Police Foundation, a nonprofit fundraising organization that supports the Atlanta Police Department, new technology is being developed to help police track perpetrators in cars, identify suspects in a crowd and tell police where crimes might happen.

College students work in a lab in the foundation’s downtown office testing a license plate recognition camera, analyzing crime data from an algorithm designed to predict crime and perusing an online pin-map that links to an expanding network of surveillance cameras.

And on Wednesday, officials with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security lauded the technology being developed for the city.

“Atlanta is really on the leading edge of work in this area,” said William Flynn, DHS deputy assistant secretary of infrastructure protection. “We spend a lot of our attention on … preparedness, protection, prevention. This kind of technology is the best use of those efforts and the best use of our resources.”

But there are critics to the idea of widespread use of video footage in the hands of police. American Civil Liberties Union senior policy analyst Jay Stanley worries that such technology could be abused.

“There’s no reason for a city to be building a giant video surveillance network like that,” he said via phone from New York. “It will create some significant chilling effects on society if every minute, people know that they’re being watched.”

Being evaluated are tools such as the crowd behavior modeling and prediction program, which was tested this past New Year’s Eve at the Peach Drop and is able to help predict or identify suspicious packages or fights based on crowd movement. A dispatching program modeled after popular search engine Google captures 9-1-1 callers’ words to be catalogued into a database that police and investigators can later search for, among other things, establishing crime trends.

“I never would’ve imagined that we would be in this place,” Atlanta Police Chief George Turner, a 32-year lawman, said Wednesday. “That is the direction the technology is headed in.”

Much of this technology is still in the testing stages, including facial recognition software and a singular license place recognition camera being used in Midtown as part of a pilot program. But the video network is real and is helping police daily.

“We’ve even been able to capture a murder on film,” said Atlanta Police Lt. LeAnne Browning, a supervisor at the video integration center where footage from more than 2,700 cameras is monitored.

A foundation report obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reflects a desire to grow that network of cameras.

Now, the police foundation has an ambitious plan in place to more than quadruple that number by as early as the end of 2015.

Officials are partnering with public organizations and businesses to add surveillance from places such as Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Georgia State, Georgia Tech, the Georgia Department of Transportation, Atlanta Public Schools, federal buildings, the Georgia Aquarium and other organizations.

“It could go to the far reaches of our city or even into (Fulton) County,” Turner said. “We want to talk about a regional project. We want to make sure that people understand that if there are cameras that are available in Sandy Springs … we should be able to have access to the region. It allows us to track situational awareness throughout the metro area.”

Turner is aware of the critics and countered that police don’t intend to pry into people’s activities behind closed doors.

“Clearly, we’re not talking about going in any place other than the public space,” he said. “The question is do people have the expectation of having privacy in the public space?”

Flynn, the Homeland Security deputy assistant secretary, said the police foundation has positioned APD well among the ranks of major city police agencies.

“Clearly, their efforts … to do predictive analysis for both crime and potentially counter terrorism are really cutting edge efforts that we want to promote and we want to look at as a best practice and replicate as best as we can across the nation.”

The chief said the new devices are tools that help good police do their jobs.

“With a combination of human resources and technology, we truly believe that Atlanta will be the safest large city in America,” Turner said.