More than 10,000 cameras are watching Atlanta for 24 hours a day and on every day of the year, according to the Atlanta Police Foundation. The foundation says the cameras, through a video surveillance program called Operation Shield, allow police “to prevent crimes before they happen and quickly solve them when they do.” Meanwhile, surveillance cameras have become a target of protests in such places as Hong Kong. We asked Dave Wilkinson, president and CEO of the foundation, a half-dozen questions about Operation Shield and camera surveillance. Here are his answers.

Dave Wilkinson,
president and CEO of the Atlanta Police Foundation. (Special)

Q: How and where does Operation Shield gather information for police?

Operation Shield consists of a network of cameras and license plate readers placed across the city that feed footage into the Atlanta Police Department’s (APD) Video Integration Center. The program acts as both a preventative and investigative measure for crime. APD signage and a signature blue light attached to each camera serve as a crime deterrent to let potential criminals know they are being watched. Should a crime occur, the cameras provide real time information to APD for increased situational awareness, as well as access to past footage for investigations.

Q. How many cameras are now in operation and monitored by Operation Shield in the city of Atlanta? In metro Atlanta (if you know)?

There are nearly 11,000 Operation Shield cameras placed throughout the city of Atlanta. Additional cameras are networked in from the city of Sandy Springs. We hope to eventually expand the program to other jurisdictions in the metro area.

Q: What benefits have local police seen from use of the cameras? Do you have any statistics for arrests made through use of cameras or before and after crime reports from areas that use the cameras?

The cameras provide APD with a “smart policing” tool that can be used during or after a crime’s occurrence. The program has been instrumental in solving some high-profile cases including the tragic homicide that occurred in 2018 at the Barcelona Wine Bar and the fire-bombing of an APD officer’s home earlier this year. Areas where cameras are installed have experienced a 20%-50% reduction in crime.

Q: Who gets information from the cameras and how is it used?

The camera footage belongs to the owners of the cameras themselves. Some of the cameras are owned by the city of Atlanta, while others are privately funded by businesses and philanthropic organizations. APD has access to the cameras for real-time information, should a crime occur in the cameras’ views, and limited access for a period of two weeks afterwards for the purpose of investigations. Following this, footage needs to be requested from the camera owner.

Q: Does Operation Shield use facial recognition software? Can the software used to operate cameras for Operation Shield be converted to use facial recognition software in the future?

Operation Shield does not currently use facial recognition software. The Atlanta Police Foundation’s Technology Innovation Center researches and pilots multiple smart policing tools each year, but we are not currently working with a platform that incorporates that type of software.

Q: In some places, such as China, cameras reportedly have been used to invade people’s privacy or to identify people who in some way are at odds with the government. What keeps that from happening here?

All Operation Shield cameras – even privately funded cameras – exist in public spaces such as streets, sidewalks, public parking lots, parks, etc. They only record where the general public has free and unfettered access. The program is designed to be a “force multiplier,” increasing police presence and public space surveillance.

Joe Earle is Editor-at-Large. He has more than 30-years of experience with daily newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.