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Atlanta under surveillance

10,000 security cameras will soon blanket the city. Do you care?



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BIRD’S EYE VIEW: Many passers-by remain unaware of cameras hanging overhead, such as this one next to the Hard Rock Cafe’s neon guitar sign downtown. - JOEFF DAVIS
  • Joeff Davis
  • BIRD’S EYE VIEW: Many passers-by remain unaware of cameras hanging overhead, such as this one next to the Hard Rock Cafe’s neon guitar sign downtown.

"Everyone is basically waiting in line to integrate their cameras as quickly as we can do it," he says. "The reality is that no one has pushed back on this at all from the business community."

In September, MARTA announced it would install cameras on its buses, trains, and mobility vans. About 25 buses have been outfitted so far. While the transit system is not currently partnering with Operation Shield, MARTA Police Sgt. Ashton Greene says that the early results bode well for its security expansion.

"It's proven to be a great investigative tool," he says. "When people know that their actions in a public area are going to be recorded, it serves as a deterrent. It's not a panacea for all nuisance behavior, but it is a layer of security."

MARTA has also set up public view monitors — 17-inch screens that show real-time camera footage to riders. In doing so, the transit agency has heightened people's awareness of their surroundings, something Greene says improves individuals' behavior.

"We've had a patron get on a bus and he's got headphones on playing very loudly," Greene says. "The bus operator asks the passenger to turn it down and he ignores the operator. He goes and sits down and some other patrons are giving him dirty looks. After ignoring everybody, he looks up and sees himself on a public view monitor. He notices that and slowly turns the headphones down."

As Greene notes, surveillance can go beyond helping prevent crime to alter citizens' everyday behavior — a side effect that can have both positive, and negative, consequences.

In January 2009, a popular bartender named John Henderson was shot and killed during an early morning robbery at the Standard, a Grant Park bar off of Memorial Drive. The slaying was the breaking point for many Atlantans fed up with the home invasions, flat-screen TV thefts, and broken car windows that sparked a citywide call for increased public safety. In addition to the monthly rallies to raise awareness about public safety and vigils to memorialize victims, the use of security systems, including home surveillance cameras, became more prevalent.

Jason Cent was among a number of homeowners who took security measures into their own hands. Shortly after Henderson's murder, the Ormewood Park resident set up a three-camera security system in his home. In addition to keeping watch over his property, the cameras have helped him and his neighbors track down crime in the surrounding area, from a private contractor hitting a mailbox to the attempted kidnapping of a nearby resident.

Cent has grown to appreciate his home security system since it yielded results following the initial crime wave in his community. He, along with some of his neighbors, are "perfectly fine" with giving up some privacy in the name of safety.

"My attitude probably has changed since I realized the value that the cameras have provided to me and my neighbors," Cent says. "I think before that, my attitude might have been that I don't want the government watching over my shoulder. Since I've taken a more active role — as, say, a 'block captain' — then it's been invaluable."

Not everyone agrees with Cent. Atlantans are largely unaware of the many cameras operating throughout the city, and it's not always evident when and where we're being watched. The devices are often in plain sight, yet discreetly blend into the surrounding urban cityscape.

"You wouldn't know if the camera is looking at you ... unless you heard someone talking about it. If you saw a big frame camera turning around and looking at you, you'd know. But with the domes, you don't know. It's kind of a level of trust there — close your shades," Wardell says with a laugh.

For some, security cameras pose a formidable threat to privacy.

"I think the natural inclination is to despise this 'Big Brother is watching you' approach," says Frank Vandall, an Emory University law professor and privacy expert. "To any member of the ACLU, there would be a feeling that it's an invasion of privacy to have the police watching you continually."

"We have definite concerns. Most of our concern is finding out how this data is being stored, how it's being shared," ACLU Staff Attorney Chad Brock says. "We want to make sure that people's information is being protected and we want to make sure that there is some sort of oversight in place to ensure that they're being used in the correct way."

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