Big Brother? Atlanta tries to thwart crime with video cameras

The group of four sworn Atlanta police officers sit in a darkened room, watching dozens of screens. Mostly, they are viewing the mundane: Cars stopped at traffic lights, pedestrians crossing the street, people walking to and from work.

But occasionally, they get lucky. Like today.

On one of the many screens, they watch as a shirtless man who apparently had just snatched a computer bag from a downtown worker kneels down, in broad daylight, to sort through the contents. He is tossing the items on the sidewalk when the computer bag’s owner and another man catch up to him. The trio begin to fight in the middle of the street before the fracas is quickly brought to an end by police called to the scene by the observers miles away, in the Video Integration Center.

Police don’t expect it to happen that way — out in the open, on one of the streets it turns out they’re monitoring — nearly as much as they want. With more cameras than eyes to watch them, officials at APD are quickly realizing what their counterparts in other places have found: Catching a crime while it’s happening is pure serendipity, even with hundreds of cameras.

Atlanta’s 650 cameras in are more tools for deterring crime and for solving crimes rather than directly preventing them or intervening in them.

Officials want to blanket Atlanta with a network of thousands of cameras, just as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and London have. In those cities, recordings of street happenings have often proved useful as police, after the fact, look for possible witnesses and clues that can help solve crimes and, in some cases, thwart terrorist attacks.

APD Deputy Chief Erika Shields said while officers in the VIC has assisted the department in making some arrests, “We have no measurable reduction in crime we can attribute directly to the center at this time.”

“We knew from the outset that arrests and crime rates would not be directly impacted by us right now,” said Shields, adding that real-time arrests are tracked. “We are just starting and we don’t want to place misplaced expectations on this.”

Real time arrests have “not been the strength of the center,” she added.

Each morning, the unit gets a list of incidents that happened overnight. With shootings, carjackings and smash and grabs, the cameras become an analytical tool that can back track suspicious people and vehicles.

“The ultimate goal was to take all these cameras in the city and integrate them into one network with the police department monitoring them,” said Dave Wilkerson, president of the Atlanta Police Foundation. “And lay on a level of tools that give alerts or alarms when a crime is committed. It is a fallacy for someone to really sit and monitor cameras.”

Partially funded by the city, the Atlanta Police Foundation and the private sector, Operation Shield will integrate thousands of cameras across the city from both the public and private sector. Last week, the Atlanta City Council approved an additional 112 new cameras — funded by the Department of Homeland Security and GEMA — that will give the city 762 cameras.

Around 550 of the cameras are owned by private companies or other public organizations, like colleges, which relieves the city of the expense.

“Our idea was unique, take private sector cameras and integrate them into our system,” Wilkerson said. “That would be the model system for moving forward in this country.”

Many U.S. cities began installing survellience cameras in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. A recent study by the Urban Institute-Justice Policy Center in Washington, D.C. said that, while crime went down when cameras were installed in Baltimore, Chicago and Washington, D.C., it was difficult to justify the cost.

Right now, Wilkerson estimates that about $6 million has been spent on Atlanta’s program. Last week, the Atlanta City Council authorized the $2.25 million purchase of 112 new surveillance cameras – of which 92 will be situated downtown.

Since 9/11, Chicago and New York have been received more than $250 million in federal funds to build up their systems, said Wilkerson.

Just last month, in addition to its vast network of cameras, the NYPD added 3,000 more video surveillance cameras in public areas, as well as 100 automated license plate readers and 600 radiation monitors that officers will carry.

“Nobody can compare with New York City and the sheer numbers of cameras they have, but their obstacles are different,” Shields said. “In L.A., it is not about cameras, but crime data and using it to target crime. Atlanta wants a hybrid. We want the cameras, but we are also sitting on a huge amount of data. Chief (George) Turner has emphasized the need to do things that are applicable for Atlanta. To do what works for us.”

Atlanta’s newest cameras should be in place before the Women’s NCAA Final Four next March.

“We are not anywhere near our goal,” Wilkerson said. “Until we have cameras over the whole city, not just Midtown, Downtown and Buckhead.”

Wilkerson is banking on getting at least $15 million worth of investments from the private sector that he can leverage into a $30 million-$50 million grant from the federal government that will show that “Atlanta and the private sector are working cohesively to build this system.”

Kenneth Ray, who works on Peachtree Street as a program director with the Georgia Department of Public Health, said he has never directly noticed the downtown presence of cameras, but appreciates their integration into safety.

“I think they can go a long way in catching perpetrators without police presence around,” Ray said. “But what keeps me feeling safe is the physical presence of the Downtown Ambassadors and the Georgia State police officers who patrol downtown.”

In the Atlanta region, several cities have also gotten into the video surviellance game. College Park, Norcross, Sandy Springs, Duluth and Lilburn, all have similar, albiet smaller programs.

But not everyone is a fan of the cameras.

James Woods, who was the live stream operator for Occupy Atlanta, in charge of documenting the movement for OA, said cameras were used more for intimidation than for safety. He argued that, if people are going to do something, they will do it, regardless of cameras.

“It is almost there as a method to intimidate,” said Woods, who also did work with Occupy Wall Street. “There have been few instances where footage has been used to convict someone, but there have been tons of cases that have been thrown out. It is like TSA screeners. They don’t keep you safe. They make you think you are safe.”

Wilkerson said the goal is to have about 1,000 cameras within the next year and 10,000 over the next five years. Those cameras will eventually include software connected with the 911 system that will activate nearby cameras when a call comes in.

“This is all part of our overall strategy of moving forward into smart, data driven policing to go with old fashion boots on the streets,” Wilkerson said.

Because it is impossible to monitor every camera in the city, the officers pick and choose – based on variables like time of day, traffic or special events. The crowds going into Hawks and Falcons games are heavily monitored, for example. As are large events like DragonCon, the Gay Pride parades and Occupy Atlanta.

“We want to be aware of what is happening to recognize real or perceived threats. If they see something suspicious, it has to be established that (the suspects) are doing something wrong,” Shields said. “We have responded to several assaults and, if you send in enough people, you usually avert a problem.”

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