Big brother comes to town
Atlanta turns to surveillance cameras to help police its streets
Two men emerged from the parking lot of the Bank of America on Peachtree Street. One man, wearing a baseball cap, swung and kicked wildly at the other, missing him both times before running west on 12th Street. The man left behind hopped up and down, frantically signaling for help before chasing after his attacker.
A dispatcher watched the scene live on a 50-inch screen at the headquarters of Midtown Blue, a privately funded public safety force with close ties to the Atlanta Police Department. She called the police, who arrived to find the incident was a robbery. The man in the baseball cap, Salvatore Mailo, allegedly stole $20,197 in cash, checks and money orders from the second man before running off to attempt to hijack a car. Mailo was arrested two blocks from the scene.
The camera that captured the robbery — an inconspicuous cylindrical device with a glass globe — is remotely controlled by a Midtown Blue dispatcher, who can tell the camera to pan, tilt and zoom up to six city blocks. Over the past four months, Midtown Blue has installed surveillance cameras at eight of the city's busiest intersections: Peachtree Street where it intersects Ponce de Leon Avenue, 14th, 12th, Eighth, Sixth, and Third streets, as well as 12th Street and Crescent Avenue, and 10th Street and Piedmont Avenue. By the end of 2006, Midtown Blue says cameras will monitor the entire Midtown Improvement District, a self-taxing district created by Midtown's commercial property owners.
Law enforcement agencies across the country that work with surveillance cameras are praising the technology, saying the cameras are 24-hour eyes that offer the most reliable eyewitness accounts.
But privacy experts such as Gerry Weber, head of the Georgia ACLU, say the cameras are part of a growing trend in post-9/11 America where privacy is routinely sacrificed for security. Weber warns that surveillance cameras go too far when they discourage free speech. He points to an alleged example of improper surveillance, a case that his office is currently handling, involving two vegans who were arrested after protesting in front of a HoneyBaked Ham store. "What [the officers] did was target a peaceful protest to chill the protesters' speech," Weber claims.
The new Midtown surveillance network is the brainchild of Midtown Blue Col. Wayne Mock, who says he studied camera networks in England and Israel before proposing one for Midtown. But crime-fighting surveillance cameras aren't new to the city. For nearly two years, the Atlanta Police Department has used cameras to monitor the Buckhead entertainment district. Maj. Joseph Spillane says there are 34 cameras in his zone, paid for by the Buckhead Alliance and monitored by the department.
Atlanta is hardly the first city to invest in surveillance technology. Chicago officials told the New York Times last year that their surveillance network is the largest in the country, possibly the world, with more than 2,000 cameras, some of which include special software that flags suspicious activity, such as a person falling to the ground or a package left out in public. In Los Angeles, city officials have announced plans to install more than a dozen cameras in one of the city's most dangerous housing projects. Bellwood, Ill., population 20,535, recently committed to having every public thoroughfare and sidewalk under police surveillance. And Baltimore is so enamored with its network of cameras that the city has a camera fixed on the person who monitors them.
Kristen Mahoney, Baltimore Police Department chief of technical services, says the department takes a creative approach to ensuring people's privacy. "If somebody is worried that we might be looking into their office window," Mahoney says, "then we can pixilate that window so that the camera can't see in."
If you want to review your own footage, though, how would you know you're being taped in the first place? Midtown Blue has put signs on telephone polls near where cameras are mounted, alerting members of the public to the fact that they're being watched. But the signs are easy to miss.
What's more, the tapes aren't as easy to access as traditional police records — at least not the ones recorded by Midtown Blue.
Midtown Blue — a private, 50-officer force staffed by off-duty or retired Atlanta police — is not required to comply with the state Open Records Act, according to Mock. "But if you wanted video," Mock says, "you could probably subpoena it and get it that way."
Following in the footsteps of Midtown Blue and the Buckhead Alliance, the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District has announced it will apply for funding for its own surveillance network, focusing on Centennial Park and the King Center.
David Wardell, vice president of operations and public safety for the private, nonprofit Downtown Improvement District, says the cameras planned for downtown most likely will be similar to the ones in Midtown, except that they'd be monitored by the APD — and therefore the tapes would be available for the public to review.
Of course, surveillance cameras are only as good as the people watching them. In March, Brian Nichols allegedly overpowered a deputy in a holding cell at the Fulton County Courthouse, stole her gun and went on a shooting spree, leaving four people dead.
The struggle with the deputy was caught on camera, but nobody was watching.