Video cops and the next generation of policing

W. David Wilkinson CEO and president of the Atlanta Police Foundation.
W. David Wilkinson
CEO and president of the Atlanta Police Foundation.

Cities across the nation are seeing the lowest incidences of crime since the early 1990s. In the city of Atlanta alone, crime is down more than 53 percent – the safest this city has been since 1969.

As the margins for crime reduction and resources get tighter, we will look to new technologies and innovative approaches to make our city safer. Most industries in the past 20 years have progressed through technological advances. Innovations in software, hardware and processes have yielded enhanced capabilities to analyze and manage data in ways never thought possible. There is no doubt that policing is undergoing a similar transformation toward technology-driven strategies.

Consider for example Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) – the use of video cameras to monitor public spaces. While this technology is not new, recent advances in camera technology and the introduction of computer-aided video analytics make it an invaluable tool for any policing strategy.

Cameras provide a safety component, and much-needed domain and situational awareness for police officers as they are deployed to the scene of a crime. They are a force multiplier as video and analytics make it possible for one officer to monitor many “virtual police beats” 24-hours a day, seven days a week. Cameras help speed the process of solving crime after it occurs as was demonstrated in the aftermath of the recent terrorist attack in Boston. But, perhaps most importantly, cameras provide a deterrence factor when would-be criminals know cameras are in the area.

A study by the Urban Institute found that in Chicago cameras were responsible for a 12 percent decline in crime when deployed in Humboldt Park. The study also identified a 25 percent drop in crime in Baltimore roughly four months after cameras were installed.

Atlanta is at the leading edge of this state-of-the-art revolution in law enforcement. Our system is unique in that the bulk of cameras will consist of existing private sector cameras that monitor public spaces: sidewalks, streets, parking facilities.

Our Operation Shield Video Integration Center (VIC), inaugurated in 2011, captures live, real-time video of more than 2,000 private and public security cameras in high traffic areas of downtown, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Midtown and Buckhead. By 2017, we expect to have more than 10,000 cameras trained on public spaces in the city, supporting our uniformed officers.

The video system will be fully integrated with the 911 Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) system, monitored by video analytics software and managed by police officers. Integration and analytics are important because it is impossible for one officer to effectively monitor thousands of cameras. In fact, it is highly unlikely for one person to monitor two camera feeds without missing some details. The video analytics software constantly “monitors” the video feeds and alerts the officers monitoring the network when a 911 call is made or other triggers are identified, such as abandoned packages left on a street.

For Atlanta, video integration is just one component of a larger, technology-driven public safety strategy known as “Operation Shield.” Through Operation Shield, we are combining a multitude of previously independent policing tools into a dynamic network. Public and private cameras, the 911 emergency system, license plate readers, arrest records and other databases are being integrated to assist in crime prevention, and in identifying, tracking and apprehending suspects when crimes are committed.

Operation Shield ensures that we accomplish three law enforcement imperatives: first, deter crime and terrorist attacks; second, expand the eyes and ears and presence of law enforcement throughout the city; and third, speed the investigative process when crime does occur.

We are living in a high-tech world, and we are embracing it to improve public safety and make Atlanta the safest, large city in the nation.


Who’s watching the watchers?

Kristen  Collins Law clerk with the American Civil  Liberties Union of Georgia and a student at John Marshall Law School.
Law clerk with the American Civil
Liberties Union of Georgia and a student at John Marshall Law School.

In the post-9/11 era, cities across the U.S. have developed mass surveillance programs with the hope of improving security.

In recent years, the city of Atlanta has expanded its network of surveillance cameras. Throughout the city, you will see many cameras posted along sidewalks and busy intersections, and signs informing the public that they are being watched. Mass surveillance has now been extended to Buckhead and Sandy Springs.

While we all want to live and work in safe communities, we must be aware of the potential problems that come from warrantless mass surveillance. Before expanding the use of surveillance programs, we must ensure there is sufficient oversight to safeguard our privacy and to protect against potential abuse.

The Iron Sky surveillance system has been implemented in many parts of Georgia. Iron Sky claims the technology has helped alleviate criminal activity. Reports on the effectiveness of surveillance cameras have been mixed, with many studies showing that the use of these cameras has had little to no effect in deterring crime.

Even if it is shown that these cameras can improve public safety, we must ensure there are safeguards in place so that we meet the need for public safety without jeopardizing our citizens’ right to privacy. Cameras used in Iron Sky surveillance have extremely high-tech capabilities, and if left in the wrong hands, they could potentially pose a threat to privacy.

The Iron Sky surveillance system advertises on their website that the cameras have pan-tilt zoom capabilities, high-definition megapixels, remote site monitoring, integrated map interface, and one-click access to floor plans and cameras within buildings. Additionally, the police can access these cameras 24- hours a day, 365 days a year.

One concern is whether the tilt-and-zoom technology will only be used in public spaces. We must assure citizens that it will never be used to zoom into a private home or office. The use of cameras should be limited to public spaces and protocols should be established to avoid privacy violations.

Other issues that can come from mass surveillance include deterring lawful expressive activities, such as political demonstrations, which are protected by the First Amendment. We are concerned that these cameras could be used to monitor certain political or religious groups, and that it could lead to greater racial profiling. Recently, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the New York Police Department for their unlawful surveillance of the Muslim community. The NYPD used cameras that were pointed toward the entrance of mosques to monitor their activities.

A study of a British surveillance camera program showed that minorities were 2 ½ times more likely to be monitored. That same study showed that one in 10 women was monitored for voyeuristic reasons. In San Francisco, a police officer was suspended after using surveillance cameras to ogle women at the San Francisco International Airport.

In order to ensure that the power of these cameras is not abused or potentially left in the wrong hands, there needs to be transparency about how the images are collected, stored, reviewed and used. The public needs to know who has access to these images, and how the information is shared with other parties.

There must be sufficient oversight to ensure cameras are being used in a way that maintains residents’ reasonable expectation of privacy.