Opinion: Georgia should up its public safety tech use, too

Credit: Casey Sykes

Credit: Casey Sykes

Georgia might do well to mirror local investments in policing.

I read the horrific reports of the most recent mass shooting in Midtown Atlanta with a sense of pride in the abilities of law enforcement. The technology used to identify and arrest the prime suspect won the day.

But it also left me with a deep sense of frustration with our state leadership’s lack of political will to do more, to implement simple, yet also cost effective measures to reduce violent crime, instead of more virtue signaling blaming cities themselves for these crimes.

As mayor of the decade-old city of Brookhaven, adjacent to Atlanta and Buckhead, our police department serves and protects 59,000 residents, as well as thousands of daily visitors and businesses within our 13-square mile city.

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

Our seasoned and well-honored chief of police, Gary Yandura, started our police department a decade ago. He retired last year, after being recognized as Georgia Chief of the Year in 2020. His successor, Brandon Gurley, is expanding inside and outside of our department on the community policing and culture of inclusion Yandura created.

Brookhaven has a full complement of officers. All sworn positions are filled. Police officers and deputies from other metro agencies want to join us. Even with that advantage, our city chose to invest in technology enhancements to simplify their work and multiply their force at a fraction of the cost of hiring additional officers.

Consider Live911 call routing. Since October last year, Brookhaven officers automatically hear a direct patch live feed of 911 calls from residents, witnesses or victims of a crime in progress at the crime scene, greatly assisting EMS in dispatching appropriate resources as well as helping officers prepare for what they will find when they arrive at the scene.

We were the first municipality in Georgia to install license plate reading (LPR) cameras located along every major traffic corridor, as well as the exit and entry points to our city. Those cameras on average scan 3.5 million plates per month, alerting Brookhaven police automatically when a plate matches a reported stolen vehicle, Amber Alerts, carjacking or similar crimes. These street cameras are aided by drone cameras in the sky, dispatched in real time from our public safety command center, to aid our officers in locating fleeing suspects, as well as identifying and tracking suspects from other jurisdictions and even other states.

Before Brookhaven installed license plate readers, our police typically recovered two to four stolen vehicles each year. After the LPRs were installed and operational, we now recover an average of 12 vehicles each month.

Much of this state’s leadership may like to talk tough about crime, passing performative “law and order” legislation overseeing district attorneys, but they’re not making many investments in these affordable technology measures.

Most of the stolen vehicles we recover in our city are from state highways. State authorities have not installed plate reader cameras there, even at interstate on- and off-ramps. We can count how many of those access points need to be covered: it’s not a big number.

And while we respect and appreciate the assistance that we receive from the Georgia State Patrol and the GBI, we would more greatly appreciate it if their officers also wore body cameras, as virtually all metropolitan police departments require their uniformed personnel to do each day.

Illinois recently provided a $12.5 million grant for LPRs along every state route moving through greater Chicago. Funny thing: Georgia has the cameras only for toll collection, while allowing dangerous criminals to drive on by. Why? Would we prefer to run political attacks instead of taking on criminals?

Cobb County police arrested the accused Midtown Atlanta shooter at a condominium complex near The Battery. Cobb’s police chief credits his department’s technological tools, including its LPRs and networked security camera systems, with making the takedown possible without the use of deadly force.

We know how highly the public values safe streets. So, here’s an offer: come take a look. See if our model can work in other communities. I suggest that our state might do well to mirror our investments, including in LPRs, drones, Live911 dispatch, as well as body cameras. Each is a part of a municipal policing success story.

But remember that cities have to get better at fighting crime because of conditions created by state and federal laws. Local police can’t prevent all acts of random violence. We’re forced to solve them instead.

Georgia can do better than this.

John Ernst is mayor of Brookhaven.