for public and officer safety on the Digital Integration Video Array (DIVA)
© Jason Getz / AJCAtlanta Police Department Marion Ellis watches a live APD traffic stop to observe for public and officer safety on the Digital Integration Video Array (DIVA) at the Joint Video Integration Center in the 911 Communication Center.
Plans to put Atlanta's public spaces under camera surveillance will move forward this week with the opening of a state-of-the-art video monitoring center.

Whether it's good that Atlanta is joining other big cities in the video surveillance race depends on your comfort level with being watched more often by police.

The downtown "Video Integration Center," funded by a mix of private donations and public money, has already given Atlanta police links to more than 100 public and private security cameras.

Talks are underway to link up with more cameras at CNN Center, Georgia State University, the Georgia World Congress Center and MARTA, along with cameras in Buckhead.

Officials say hundreds or thousands more private-sector cameras will eventually feed into the center. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution toured the center last week, as live footage of a traffic stop and archived video of a DragonCon parade played on a 15-foot screen. Officers can watch up to 128 views at once.

"This is just the beginning," said Dave Wilkinson, president of the Atlanta Police Foundation, which helped raise money for the center. "This is going to grow by leaps and bounds over the years. The goal, of course, is to have the entire city blanketed."

With enough cameras, it might be possible to never lose sight of a suspect after a crime occurs, advocates say. And camera backers say signs warning of constant surveillance help prevent crime, although they acknowledge it is difficult to know how much.

For now, the center has camera coverage on only about one of the city's 131 square miles.

The planned spread of surveillance -- both from installing new cameras and connecting with existing systems at, say, Coca-Cola and Cousins Properties -- chills privacy advocates.

"I should hope the public is not okay with it," said Brett Bittner, executive director of the Libertarian Party of Georgia. "We're talking about filming every aspect of people's lives once they step out of the house."

Cities increasingly use cameras to supplement police forces, often with funding from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Sergeant Marion Ellis watches a live APD traffic stop
© Jason Getz / AJCAtlanta Police Department Sergeant Marion Ellis watches a live APD traffic stop.
In the Atlanta region, the spread of cameras has occurred largely through contracts with a Texas-based company called Iron Sky. College Park worked with the firm to expand its public safety surveillance system and used the cameras in a prostitution sting last year. Norcross and Sandy Springs signed up for software that allows police to view any camera in the city from any computer on the cities' networks, including laptops in patrol cars. Duluth got 18 high-definition cameras.

Lilburn spent $113,000 to set up more cameras on the Greenway Trail, and the south Georgia city of Valdosta set them up in alleys and streets around a high-crime housing project. Atlanta's Historic Westside Village community set up seven high-resolution pan/tilt/zoom cameras. Cameras have popped up at Atlanta Station and in other areas of Midtown, and are linked to the Video Integration Center.

Col. Wayne Mock, a retired Atlanta police officer who manages security for the Midtown Alliance, said last year that cameras in his area factored in more than 700 arrests over five years. The Midtown system has been expanded since then.

"A camera is a police officer hanging on a telephone pole," Mock told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Atlanta officials say they want a monitoring system in the same league as New York's or Chicago's. The city and the police foundation have contributed $500,000 each in funding for the new center, with state grants adding another $1.2 million.

"As criminals get more sophisticated, so must law enforcement," Atlanta Police Chief George Turner said. "This is an exciting opportunity for us to leverage cutting-edge technology, allowing us to stay one step ahead of lawbreakers. It will also help us be more prepared as our officers respond and react to any situation within view of the cameras."

But doubts have sprung up about cameras' effectiveness.

In Chicago, a report from the American Civil Liberties Union based on records requests found that the city's access to 10,000 cameras led to 4,500 arrests over a four-year period. That was less than 1 percent of total arrests, from a system that cost $60 million. In 2007, Washington police said surveillance footage from the city's network of cameras had never been used to make an arrest. The department later said it contributed to several arrests.

Footage from the cameras will be deleted after a period between two weeks and a month to clear space on servers, said Atlanta Police Sgt. David Ferguson, commander of the video center.

Officials insist cameras linked to the center will only watch areas the public could already see. The city's law department is drafting rules for the center, Ferguson said.

The police department will have to pay for the center's operation, and the city has not said how much that will cost. Linking private security cameras to the center is now free to a business or neighborhood, but eventually a fee will be added to offset the cost.