Cameras may police city streets

Atlanta’s other reality show is taping today outside CNN Center, at Woodruff Park and in Midtown.

What you might call Real Pedestrians of Atlanta is a rather modest video surveillance: a few dozen cameras monitoring select locations in the city every second. But the city has applied for millions in federal stimulus funds so it can train about 500 more cameras on city streets.

The city may now engage in a debate that has roiled European capitals for years: Is closed-circuit surveillance a benign tool that helps the cops deter and even solve crimes, or is Big Brother coming to town to observe and record every move you make?

City officials are seeking $13.7 million in federal cash amid a series of high-profile crimes in recent months: a champion boxer shot dead in the street, a City Council member carjacked at gunpoint, a rash of armed robberies near Georgia Tech.

The system Atlanta plans to use could store images for up to 30 days and support software that reads license plate numbers and detects gunshots. Critics say the system conjures up images from George Orwell’s “1984,” a novel about a totalitarian state presided over by an all-seeing Big Brother. They wonder where the cameras will be pointed, who will have access to these images and sounds, how long will they be kept, and where will they be stored.

“It’s kind of creepy,” said Marc Rotenberg executive director of the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center. “Mass surveillance is essentially directed toward everyone, so it doesn’t matter if you are someone planning a crime or if you are a resident or tourist or someone who is walking into an office building to go to work. Everyone gets swept into these big databases.”

City police, however, point to the spread of such cameras across the country and around the world. Community improvement districts already operate dozens across downtown and Midtown Atlanta. The city’s application says private and public organizations would be able to tie their cameras into the new network.

“Times have changed,” said Maj. Khirus Williams, commander of the city’s downtown police zone. “We are no longer in the 1950s. The good of a camera certainly outweighs ‘Is Big Brother watching me?’ ”

At Williams’ office on Spring Street, workers for the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District monitor a computer screen — at all hours — with live video streaming in from 13 cameras placed around downtown. With the cameras, they can pan wide areas and zoom in on people and objects. When they spot suspicious activity, they contact Williams’ officers and share video footage for evidence in solving crimes.

Williams said the cameras have helped police fight violent crime downtown, though he has not kept related statistics. He showed a reporter still images from one of the cameras of a man climbing into a downtown parking deck and stealing an automobile. Williams said the images helped police identify the man and arrest him in August.

North of Williams’ office, off-duty Atlanta police officers monitor footage from 41 cameras in the Midtown Improvement District. Purchased by property owners in the district, the cameras have assisted in more than 600 arrests for bank robberies, car thefts and other crimes since the summer of 2005, when the first camera was installed, said Col. Wayne Mock, the district’s public safety manager.

Popular elsewhere

Other cities have already installed thousands of these cameras. Baltimore has 480 and Chicago has 2,000, according to the Washington-based Urban Institute, which is studying their impact on crime.

Preliminary results from the study show crime has fallen in parts of both cities where the cameras are located. For example, violent crime and larcenies fell by 25 percent — or 30 incidents per month — in downtown Baltimore, starting in the fourth month after the cameras were installed in 2006, the study says. The cameras, according to the study, have helped identify suspects and getaway cars and find weapons used to commit crimes. “It has helped solve literally thousands of crimes,” Chicago police spokesman Roderick Drew said. “In fact, our detectives have reviewed over 20,000 video segments this year alone.”

When the cameras tape activity in public areas, their images can be admitted in court, said Clifford Fishman, a former federal prosecutor who now teaches law at Catholic University of America in Washington.

“If the camera focuses on what you do in the living room of your apartment or something like that, then there is debate,” said Fishman, who wrote “Wiretapping and Eavesdropping.” “But if you are out on the street, if you are in the courtyard, if you are on the sidewalk, if you are in the park, you have no reasonable expectation of privacy.”

The Urban Institute’s study, meanwhile, has found the cameras are not without their problems. When they automatically pan areas, they may capture only portions of a sequence of events. At night and during bad weather, they might not capture images strong enough for evidence. They are sometimes targeted by vandals. And their maintenance costs can be high. Atlanta has estimated its annual personnel and maintenance cost at $3.2 million for its proposed network.

69 new jobs

A major emphasis of the federal stimulus program is to create or save jobs. Atlanta officials estimate their plan would create up to 69 full-time and temporary positions in the city’s downtown 911 center, where the live video footage would be monitored.

The city is applying to the U.S. Commerce Department for a slice of $4.7 billion in federal stimulus funding available through the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program. That program is meant to help make broadband technology available to public safety workers, libraries, community colleges and “unserved and underserved areas.”

At least one government watchdog wonders whether Atlanta’s project is an appropriate way to spend federal stimulus dollars meant for the expansion of broadband technology.

“The descriptions don’t match except for that small reference to law enforcement. It is definitely worth questioning,” said Jayne Watson, assistant director of Common Cause Georgia, a member of the Georgia Stimulus Transparency and Accountability Coalition. “Let’s see how the process plays out and how the Commerce Department chooses to prioritize grant criteria.”

Atlanta officials envision their project spurring companies to expand broadband Internet services in certain parts of the city.

The city, meanwhile, is not the only applicant seeking federal funding for video surveillance, public records show. The Worcester Housing Authority in Massachusetts; the cities of Daveport, Iowa, and Union City, Calif.; and Dallas County Schools Inc. in Texas have all applied for the funding for surveillance and other purposes. In all, almost 2,200 applicants are seeking nearly $28 billion in federal stimulus funding for broadband projects in all 50 states.

Atlanta’s application did not make the list of 22 Georgia recommended to the Commerce Department on Oct. 14 for $129.2 million in grants and loans. But that doesn’t mean the city won’t get the money it wants.

An assistant U.S. commerce secretary will make the final funding decisions; his announcements will begin next month. State officials say they will help Atlanta apply during a second round of federal funding if the city doesn’t succeed this time. Plus, city police are considering seeking money from another source: the Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services program.

“I would have liked to have been in those top 22 recommended projects from the” state, Deputy Atlanta Police Chief George Turner said. “But it is not a death blow.”

‘It doesn’t bother me’

Georgia Tech Student Body President Alina Staskevicius predicted the cameras could help deter armed robberies around the campus if they are placed in the right areas.

“There is only so much you can do with increased lighting, right?” she said. “Having cameras around could be beneficial to all the Atlanta-area universities.”

But there is disagreement among tourists and others who live and work in the city.

Just across the street from the CNN Center in downtown, where a sign declares “Area Under 24 Hours Video Surveillance,” Cheryl Semands was asking someone for directions to the High Museum of Art last week.

A Houston resident, she was in town for a nephew’s wedding and wasn’t troubled by the cameras perched around downtown.

“They do it in London all day long,” she said of video surveillance. “It might bother the criminals. It doesn’t bother me in the least bit to have security cameras. Of course, I’m not doing anything wrong.”

A block away, Davis Petterson and his Zentropy band mates were packing up their instruments after an afternoon improvisational jazz performance in Centennial Olympic Park. Petterson said he would rather see the city hire more police officers instead of putting up cameras like the one that sat above him at Marietta Street and Andrew Young International Boulevard.

“It would get too Orwellian for me,” the Little Five Points resident said of the city’s plans to install hundreds of the cameras. “Cameras are weird.”