Around 250 surveillance cameras in the Atlanta Police Department’s vaunted “Operation Shield” crime-fighting network were dead for months starting last fall, with some still down in early February, after a maintenance contract blunder.

“They were all over the city… Certainly, some of them were in Buckhead,” said Dave Wilkinson, president and CEO of the Atlanta Police Foundation, the private group that helps fund and manage Operation Shield, about the dead cameras. The problem was the city’s failure to pick up the maintenance duties and bills after initial, three-year contracts expired, he said. “This was probably a bump in the road we should have expected,” he added.

The dead devices were just a small portion of the roughly 10,600 public and private surveillance cameras plugged into the Operation Shield network that officers view at a central office. But that still meant 250 spots around Atlanta with a false sense of security and none of the expected video evidence that Operation Shield officers use to dispatch patrol cars or investigate crimes.

And that’s on top of the other cameras that are broken or worn out at any given time. Of the small percentage of Operation Shield cameras directly owned by the city – 716 – a total of 53 were shut down for maintenance or upgrades or were “just plain not working” as of Feb. 20, according to APD spokesperson Carlos Campos.

The maintenance contracts for the 250 cameras appear to have fallen between the cracks of the three agencies with Operation Shield administrative duties: the foundation, APD and the city government. It appears there is no single employee who tracked contracts across the jurisdictions. Wilkinson said the quick fix was to have the foundation retain maintenance supervision of the cameras, while the city will still pay for the work.

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

It’s a solution that will be tested again, because the 250 cameras were just the first batch to have expiring contracts, with many more privately funded cameras soon to pass into city maintenance responsibility.

“We have a regular cadence of those cameras [that] will be rolled over to the city of Atlanta,” said Wilkinson.

At the same time, the APD’s surveillance system is growing ever larger and more technically demanding, and not just by the continual addition of cameras to Operation Shield. Wilkinson said the foundation and APD are now working on a program called “Operation Aware” that would link cameras and such databases as recently scanned license plates, vehicle registration records and criminal rap sheets to start suggesting possible suspects almost automatically in a “real-time crime center.”

Camera contract blunder

A basic premise of Operation Shield is the use of privately owned cameras to reduce or eliminate city expenses. APD can watch through the networked cameras, but does not own or store the data from those that are privately owned. A big strategy of system expansion is a foundation program where private groups or individuals can pay for cameras, which are then installed at spots identified in an APD master plan. The program has been popular in Buckhead, where funders have included the Buckhead Community Improvement District and City Councilmembers J.P. Matzigkeit and Howard Shook. Prominent local real estate developer Robin Loudermilk of the Loudermilk Companies is another major supporter; he chairs the foundation’s executive committee and has his family name on the Video Integration Center where APD watches the camera feeds.

Around October and November of last year, Wilkinson said, he learned that many of those cameras were dead. “About 250 of the cameras were down,” he said. “…Three here, two there, one there.” They were a mix of visual and license-plate reader cameras.

Talks quickly began with Police Chief Erika Shields, city councilmembers and other officials. But they were done quietly, apparently in part so that criminals would not know. In November, Wilkinson wrote an opinion article for the Reporter about Operation Shield that did not mention the situation. But as time wore on, frustrations grew. In January, Shook told fellow BCID board members that he understood that an “unsettling percentage” of the Operation Shield cameras were not working.

Meanwhile, the foundation and APD figured out that the problem was the maintenance contract. The program of private funding for the cameras included installation and a three-year maintenance and operations agreement, which was carried out by the foundation’s contractor, ISO Network. After that, the cameras were supposed to shift to city maintenance and funding for it. The city, according to Wilkinson, uses a different contractor, GC&E Systems Group. That shift never happened and with the bills unpaid, the operator pulled the plug on the cameras.

Wilkinson said he understands from APD that it was a “procurement issue at the city…the bottom line is, they had a little bit of a glitch in that system.” City press secretary Michael Smith did not have immediate comment from the administration.

Atlanta City Councilmember J.P. Matzigkeit.(Special)

“There were some cameras that, frankly, went down. The ball was dropped in that transfer,” said Matzigkeit. “They were shut down. … They were not functioning cameras.”

The cost of operations and maintenance, Wilkinson said, is about $1,200 per camera per year, of which about $500 to $600 is maintenance and the rest is wireless or cable connections.

When the contract issue was identified, Wilkinson said, a 28-day solution plan began. “The city immediately started fixing half [of] the cameras,” and the foundation covered the rest, he said. “As of about three weeks ago, they were basically back up and running again.” However, four were still being brought online as of early February, he said.

“We need to build a more sustainable maintenance program,” said Wilkinson. The deal where the foundation supervises the maintenance while the city pays is “a better plan, certainly, going forward,” he said. “We’ve tightened up the process.”

“We are aware that several months ago there were some issues that resulted in a couple hundred cameras requiring repair and maintenance,” said Campos, the APD spokesperson. “We are confident that those issues have been addressed, and estimate that only about 7% of the cameras in the Operation Shield network maintained by the city of Atlanta are currently in need of maintenance.”

Regular maintenance issues can be time-consuming, Wilkinson said, sometimes taking weeks depending on the problem and the ownership. Georgia Power, Verizon and Comcast are among the companies involved in operating some of the cameras. “On any given day, there’s a camera or two that go down,” said Wilkinson, adding that the Operation Shield goal is that “no more than 5% of the cameras [are] down at any given time.”

Matzigkeit said he is working the foundation, APD and city officials to ensure there is a sufficient budget for camera maintenance and such other possibilities as arrangements to lease rather than own the equipment.

“The Police Foundation and I personally [are] committed to the camera program and making sure the camera program is up and running,” said Matzigkeit. “… So that’s what’s happening now, is getting this set up.”

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.