Drones may be used to police Lenox Square mall in an experimental program coming out of the new “Buckhead Security Plan,” according to an update from an official leading the effort.

Speaking at a Feb. 4 meeting of the Buckhead Business Association, Jim Durrett added that Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has privately expressed support for the “Buckhead Security Plan” and may speak about crime at an upcoming meeting of a community organization like the BBA.

Jim Durrett.

Durrett is coordinating the multi-organization “Security Plan” in his dual role as head of the Buckhead Coalition and the Buckhead Community Improvement District. He gave an update on the roughly $750,000 raised or dedicated so far for the plan’s $1.625 million program, including more off-duty patrols, cameras and youth center money.

Durrett later clarified in an email that the drone program is not “definite or imminent” at this point, but was part of discussions with mall owner Simon Property Group. “A few months ago, in a conversation with Simon … representatives in Indianapolis, we had a discussion about technology that Simon was considering employing at their properties, including drones,” Durrett said. “It was a wide-ranging discussion about how Simon was exploring new technology that could be deployed to deter criminal activity, and we agreed that Lenox Square might be a good location to pilot new technology, including drones.”

Robin Suggs, the general manager of Lenox Square, declined to comment on the record about the drone program. However, she discussed several other aspects of the mall’s security, which includes metal detectors, gun-sniffing dogs and an Atlanta Police Department mini precinct that at times has more officers on-site than are patrolling in all of Buckhead. She also revealed that the mall’s system of 200 surveillance cameras, which are tied into an APD system, are using firearm-recognition technology to automatically trigger law enforcement and security responses.

In his BBA comments, Durrett also took a more conciliatory tone than the plan’s political criticisms of Bottoms — whom it calls on to personally denounce crime in public — and the Black Lives Matter protest movement. And he turned down the heat on neighborhood crime fears that, among other reactions, has helped to fuel a separate cityhood movement he opposes. Durrett praised Bottoms and acknowledged that crime is a citywide issue that is less severe in Buckhead than in many other areas and for which the neighborhood will offer citywide resources.

“I’m here to tell you we met with the mayor… and she is very supportive of what we’re doing…,” Durrett said. “I’m convinced now that we have a good partner in the city of Atlanta.”

“The mayor said, ‘I welcome the opportunity to speak directly to Buckhead. Help me identify the best ways of doing that,’” added Durrett.

The Mayor’s Office did not immediately respond to a comment request.

Buckhead has seen its share of a nationwide spike in violent crime. But Durrett offered some context and blamed social media for fueling disproportionate crime fears. Echoing Atlanta Police Department commanders’ public comments and the Reporter’s recent review of police statistics, Durrett said that Buckhead’s largest crime problem is thefts involving vehicles left unlocked or running — something the “Security Plan” also addresses with an educational campaign. One of the Buckhead CID’s off-duty patrols recently found a vehicle left running with a dog inside while the driver patronized a gas station on Pharr Road, one of the current crime hot spots, Durrett said.

“Our part of Atlanta is not the worst part of Atlanta in terms of the number of crimes that are committed,” Durrett said. “… What we have a lot of in Buckhead is larcenies related to automobiles as well as stolen automobiles. … An unbelievably large percentage of those crimes is because people have been irresponsible with their vehicles.”

Durrett also noted that the causes of crime are complex and the current spike is still partly unexplained. “It’s a combination of COVID [and] it’s the number of guns that are out there,” he said. “It’s the gap that we have in the city of Atlanta between those who have and those who have not, including having not the hope that their condition can improve.”

Several of the “Security Plan” programs are, or are intended to be, deployed citywide, Durrett said, “so we are not perceived as just protecting ourselves” in Buckhead. That includes funding surveillance cameras outside the neighborhood and giving money to the Atlanta Police Foundation’s youth and community center programs, “none of which are in Buckhead.” The plan’s organizers also have given an extra $50,000 to the Crime Stoppers of Greater Atlanta reward fund for those who provide tips about suspects.

The “Security Plan” is a list of many policies, programs and ideas, some already existing, some theoretical. Durrett gave an update on the progress of some of the items since the plan’s release in December.

Drones at Lenox Square

A “Security Plan” item calling for pilot programs of unspecific new police technology could include the drones at Lenox Square, Durrett said.

The program involves the “novel utilization of drones to have additional eyes in certain areas” and would be “using Lenox Square as that testing ground,” he told the BBA.

The mall at 3393 Peachtree Road has been a hot spot of gun violence over roughly 18 months, with several people wounded and one killed. The neighboring Phipps Plaza mall at 3500 Peachtree is where police believe a suspect fired a bullet that unintentionally hit and killed 7-year-old Maxie Kennedy in December.

Simon Property Group, which owns both malls, responded with a new security regime at Lenox Square that includes metal detectors and gun-sniffing dogs. Phipps Plaza will see some similar features, Durrett and others have said. The company did not immediately respond to a comment request.

Suggs said in an interview that Lenox Square for about a year has been experimenting with security-camera software that aims to automatically recognize firearms — both long guns and handguns. “The cameras also have weapons technology built in, so if someone exposes a handgun or portion of a handgun [or other firearm], the technology alerts a dispatcher,” she said. Law enforcement and private security officers can zoom in on the suspected gun and make an immediate response, she said.

The use of drones by police is largely uncharted legal territory. The neighboring city of Brookhaven announced last year that its police department will use the aerial robots to respond to 911 calls, saying that will save time and money. Experts say there are no national standards on the legal and ethical implications of such robo-policing.

Off-duty patrol increases

The keystone feature of the “Security Plan,” and one that got national media attention, is a program to coordinate the neighborhood’s many existing privately operated security patrols and increase their number. Such patrols are largely staffed by off-duty officers from various departments.

One of the supplement patrol cars jointly operated by the Atlanta Police Department and the Buckhead Community Improvement District. (File)

The Buckhead CID in partnership with APD already operates two cars in the so-called supplemental patrols in its area, which roughly consists of the neighborhood’s central commercial core around Peachtree and Ga. 400. A third patrol, with money from the CID and a car paid for by the Atlanta Police Foundation, is expected to begin next week, Durrett said. Those patrols all operate Mondays through Saturdays, 6 p.m. to 2 a.m., and target crime hot spots, which currently include Pharr Road in Buckhead Village and Peachtree Road around the malls. ‘

If the fundraising works out, Durrett said, the organizations involved in the “Security Plan” hope to add an additional four supplemental patrols in other commercial areas, including southern Peachtree near Midtown, West Paces Ferry Road and Northside Parkway.

The organizations, he said, continue to work on a radio system that will allow officers in all private patrols to communicate with each other to issue alerts and call for assistance.

Surveillance cameras

Expanding the citywide network of surveillance cameras is another major feature of the plan. APD has more than 10,000 public and private security cameras plugged into its “Operation Shield” system, where a centralized team of police officials can monitor the feeds. Durrett said the private camera company Flock will be involved in increasing the camera supply.

However, Operation Shield has had technical and other issues. As the Reporter revealed last year, 250 cameras citywide went dead for months — a fact that authorities kept secret — due to a maintenance contract blunder. At this time last year, another 53 were offline for upgrades, maintenance or other issues.

Durrett said the city is working on a funding program that should ensure maintenance is not a problem by mid-year. He also said the city is in the process of “fixing a hardware and software issue with the Operation Shield network” to allow any type of surveillance camera to be connected with it.

Update: This story has been updated with comments from Jim Durrett clarifying that the drone program remains uncertain and from Lenox Square manager Robin Suggs about security programs.

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John Ruch

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