Atlanta Police have thousands of public and private cameras throughout the city as part of its Operation Shield program that send real-time images to a central office where officers keep watch. City officials also want residents and small business owners to join a new security camera network called “Connect Atlanta.” (File)

Rising crime and gun violence in the city are putting pressure on Mayor Andre Dickens and the Atlanta Police Department to find ways to stop it.

Recent actions such as opening a new police precinct in Buckhead Village and teaming up with Fulton County to create a task force to track repeat offenders are intended to ease public concerns.

The mayor and APD also want the public to participate in fighting crime. Officials are urging residents and business owners to register and integrate their private surveillance cameras into the city’s new Connect Atlanta network. Doing so would assist police to quickly identify and capture criminals. Sharing private camera information also will not be invasion of privacy, the city said.

“Your participation is truly invaluable in aiding our police, our firefighters and first responders to rapidly respond to criminal activity and emergency situations,” Dickens said at a June 21 press conference.

“This Connect Atlanta program is voluntary and will not serve as an invasion of privacy,” the mayor said.

The nonprofit ACLU of Georgia is skeptical that surveillance technology does not invite invasions of privacy, however. This is especially true when the community being watched has no input on guidelines on how to use any security footage police may gather from someone’s Ring camera, for example. Surveillance technology without community input and standards “presents significant threats to civil rights and civil liberties that disproportionately impact communities of color and low-income communities,” the organization said.

Atlanta is consistently ranked as one of the most surveilled cities in the U.S. and the world. A 2021 report by Comparitech, a website monitoring cybersecurity and online privacy, said the average U.S. city had about six cameras per 1,000 people. Atlanta had almost 50 cameras per 1,000 people.

Connect Atlanta has registered nearly 4,300 cameras and integrated 6,400 cameras, according to its website. Registered cameras allow the APD to create a map of where private security cameras are located. If an incident happens in the area of a camera, APD will reach out to those homeowners to ask for footage, police said.

Businesses and residents can also integrate their cameras with APD, giving officers direct access to their cameras. The Atlanta Police Foundation is selling “bundles” of equipment and subscriptions for the integrated camera option. Prices range from $350 to $1,900.

Christopher Bruce, political director at ACLU of Georgia, said Atlanta residents may want to consider what more surveillance could mean for the city and the “sacred constitutional right” to privacy. Especially because the community has not been asked for their input on how this kind of data can be used, he said.

“Are they comfortable with this type of sharing and unfettered power that the Atlanta Police Department has over this?” Bruce said. “The police department is using private citizens’ resources to do their job. And I’m not saying that’s a good or bad thing. I’m just saying there should be a standard surrounding this use that the community comes up with, not the police department.”

Connect Atlanta is an expansion of the APD’s Operation Shield security camera network. Operation Shield includes nearly 11,000 public and private cameras placed throughout the city that feed real-time images to a central office monitored constantly by police officers. Atlanta Police also use “ShotSpotter” technology to detect gunfire.

Operation Shield has had technical issues. The Reporter revealed that 250 cameras citywide went dead for months — a fact that authorities kept secret — due to a maintenance contract blunder. 

Christopher Bruce, political director of ACLU of Georgia, says the city of Atlanta needs to seek out community input to create standards for the Atlanta Police Department’s public safety surveillance programs, such as Connect Atlanta and Operation Shield. (ACLU)

APD Interim Chief Darin Schierbaum said at the June conference with the mayor that Connect Atlanta is “truly the neighborhood watch of the 21st century.” The more people who integrate and register their surveillance cameras with the APD, the more leads police get to quickly catch criminals, he said.

“This police department will always be doing the dangerous and the difficult work on behalf of our citizens,” Schierbaum said. “But this program … makes the difference in quick apprehensions.”

Homicide rates have climbed in Atlanta since 2020. There have been 86 homicides as of July 16, up 12% over last year, according to the APD.

Bruce said when people hand over their security footage to police or give them access to their cameras, they often are not told what officers are doing with the information. In Illinois, an ACLU chapter raised concerns about a $59,000 two-year contract between the Bloomington Police Department and Flock Safety. The police would use Flock’s license plate readers via the contract, but the ACLU argues the contract isn’t fair to Bloomington residents because, for one reason, it isn’t clear on how Flock and the police would use the data.

The cities of Brookhaven, Dunwoody and Sandy Springs have partnered with Ring, the doorbell-camera company. Ring is owned by Amazon. The local departments also promised there would be no invasion of privacy. But Amazon has admitted it has handed over information from Ring cameras to police without owners’ consent.

Bruce also noted Brookhaven’s use of drones in police work, also with no regulations.

“When it comes to people coming together for their public safety, especially engaging with the police department, I think that is a great thing,” Bruce said.

“The police are supposed to protect and serve the citizens of the community,” he said. “But it has to be a two-way street.”

Dyana Bagby is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers and Atlanta Intown.