APD Series 4

Cameras and the police aren’t anything new. The places cameras may be put and how we engage or don’t engage with police through them is some relatively new territory, and in Atlanta, we seem to be embracing this wholeheartedly. The third session of class was a trip to the Communications Center for the APD. I’ll talk about it first, with the next piece devoted to discussion of 911. Ironically, I think the APD thought the more interesting part of this week was what they refer to as the VIC- the Communications and Video Integration Center, located at 180 Peachtree, next door to Sweet Georgia’s Juke Joint and across from 191 Peachtree and the Ritz Carlton. I didn’t find this presentation half as interesting as the 911 portion. The thought of cameras being more present in the city versus encouraging more folks to be on the street is not what I think will resolve these challenges. Creating a visual tower from which we can see the city rather than interact with it is sort of the opposite of how I believe many would say we get to safer streets. Nonetheless, the VIC is a striking site to behold.

Camera hovering over Fair St., within the Ashview neighborhood.

The VIC gave me strong Big Brother vibes. It’s essentially a central spot to watch multiple cameras of intersections around the city. Imagine a HUGE- and I mean HUGE (almost movie theater size) screen of multiple cameras in a dark room. Each camera is trained to an intersection the police are watching. Want to watch another intersection? Switch to another camera. I understand the need for cameras- the APD can’t be everywhere, but I actually think another factor isn’t considered enough in the city.

People don’t walk or interact on the street a lot here. 

I do. Every week when we met at MARTA accessible locations, I took the train. I tend to prefer to take transit when I can. For this week I took it to the Peachtree Center Station and was amazed at how few people were in the station as well as on Peachtree Street as I walked. If a crime occurred, who would a police officer seek as a witness? Cameras are a sad necessity in a city that has both public transit and walkability yet doesn’t use it because we’re too afraid of our fellow human. In my neighborhood, there’s always someone on the street- kids, adults, neighbors who honk at me when I’m out in the yard. People see you and you are seen. New neighbors moving in ask me about what cameras and security systems my husband and I use, and our answer remains: none. We have neighbors all around us who keep an eye out. In the “before” times, pre-Covid, the kids in the neighborhood would text us if an Airbnb guest pulled up and they didn’t recognize the car. The neighborhood watches out for one another, just like my small town hometown did.

This is actually something that’s backed up with research. In the process of educating myself on policing here locally, I came across Cedric Alexander’s book, The New Guardians: Policing in America’s 21st Century. I highly recommend it! Alexander references the Broken Window Theory, from Kelling and Wilson, 

…“residents of the foot-patrolled neighborhoods seemed to feel more secure than persons in other areas, tended to believe that crime had been reduced, and seemed to take fewer steps to protect themselves from crime (staying at home with the doors locked, for example). Moreover, citizens in the foot patrol areas had a more favorable opinion of the police than did those living elsewhere.” Even more surprising, “officers walking beats had higher morale, greater job satisfaction, and a more favorable attitude toward citizens in their neighborhoods than did officers assigned to patrol cars.”

George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson, “Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety,” The Atlantic (March 1992), http://www.the-atlantic.com/magazine/archive/1982/03/broken-windows/304465/.

The presence referenced above is police, but I’d go further to make a case that streets that have people on them (period) are less likely to experience crime. It appears that some other groups in Fl., Va., and Ohio reflect this as well– those bastions of progressive thought that they may be. Who knew placemaking and encouraging foot traffic would reduce crime?!? And yet business leaders in Atlanta seem to not be able to reconcile their need for convenience with a need to feel safe. Pity. 

The absence of folks on the street in Atlanta reminds me of the implicit aspect of the Portman bridge– Atlantans have always had this fear of the people you meet on the street. It’s weird. It’s not exclusive to race or ethnicity. It’s more of a fear of our fellow human thing. Those with the money and ability to choose otherwise don’t take transit. The fear isn’t limited to transit, as my classmates left the Communications Center walking together for fear of what they might encounter walking alone to the parking decks. Instead, I walked alone back to Peachtree Center remembering my traveling alone while studying abroad and reflected on the FDR quotation about fear along my path. “…The only thing we have to fear is…fear itself” This is a sentiment that I discovered I shared with Chief Bryant when he announced there was nothing he feared in Atlanta in our first session. I understand that feeling implicitly. I feel the same way. I’d also like to add that only one of us walks the street, strapped.

Back to the class at hand…The VIC was clearly a big deal for the APD. Deputy Schierbaum gave us a tour and answered questions in the control room they use for large events- think of the Peachtree Road Race and the Superbowl. He emphasized the only people allowed in the room are those who have something they are offering the APD- a resource, like GSP or DNR. 

The prevalence of cameras brought questions about Body Cameras worn by officers. Deputy Schierbaum identified that the APD can dial into an officer’s body camera so they can see things on the ground level. He assured the class that the Eye in the Sky cannot, though, turn them off. 

Call me cynical but an overlord of cameras that can be controlled remotely doesn’t in fact make me feel safe. 

There was also discussion of integration of Ring Cameras and cameras from businesses and residences around the city. I’d already received an emailed flier about them, but many of my classmates hadn’t yet heard about the program. Essentially, you contact the police and give them voluntary access to your cameras register your camera in their system. When a crime occurs in the area, they can send an automatic geocoded email blast to the registered cameras in the area to request footage around the event. This isn’t uncommon- many neighbors in my neighborhood willingly offer up their Ring footage to share in case of solving a crime already. But this program is an on-going interaction with the police so that they can watch neighborhoods remotely and interact with residents less. I feel like this is the opposite of trust building in the community, but it is what it is in this lack of police new hires and general cultural aversion to other people. Here’s what the email sent out from my Zone Commander said:  

We have now provided access to this new crime-fighting tool to the entire Atlanta Police Department. To make this the most robust Real-Time Crime Fighting tool possible, we are inviting private partners to the network.

You can also join this effort. The public-facing website is connectatlanta.org. We are hoping that every Atlantan that has a camera system will at a minimum register their cameras in Fusus. The registry allows officers and investigators to quickly send an email to registered users anytime an incident occurs near them. That email contains a hyperlink so that a registered user can send the video back to the requestor. The registry users hyperlink provides a simple drag and drop interface to send the requested video to the investigator’s video vault in evidence.com. This will, over time, eliminate the need to drive to locations to request and pick up video evidence. 

A quick example of how this works in reality – a crime occurs at 123 ABC Street. We have a description of a black sedan that was the getaway vehicle. The assigned investigator can send a request to every registered camera by clicking a view button in Fusus. They would request that any registered user send video to them if they see a black sedan during the requested timeframe.

The opportunity to integrate cameras is also available through the same platform. We want you to encourage every small business owner you come into contact with to integrate their cameras into Fusus.  Fusus is camera agnostic.  It does not matter what systems they use to run their camera network. We can integrate any system that they have. The website explains how the process works and the cost.

FUSUS has integrated our cameras systems, LPR’s, Motorola Premier One (CAD), First-Two, and automatic vehicle location services. We are in the process of integrating several other platforms to include Mark 43, Carfax for Police, Shotspotter, and several others. We are also looking at integrating a video firearm detection software called Zero Eyes.

First-Two is a new application acquired while completing the FUSUS project. The First-Two application is a map-based form of an open records search, and it will provide publicly available information about people who live near an incident location. 

FUSUS is the Big Brother system my class got to witness at the VIC on this HUGE screen. ShotSpotter is a gunshot detection program the APD has used before and decided it wasn’t worth the $280K price tag. Shotspotter has been a useful tool in combat zones-it’s my understanding the US military really likes it. I’ll let the implicit meaning of that for Atlanta rest here. Here’s the 11Alive coverage regarding it. Interestingly enough, I saw a map of my neighborhood up in the Zone 1 precinct during my ride along that tells me it’s already been employed. I found it intriguing to learn that the beat cops in my Zone likewise thought it was a waste of money.

One of the PAINFULLY clear needs in Atlanta (perhaps America as a whole) is for community members to interact with one another in deeper, more meaningful ways- not just a wave to one another in the driveway. Alexander names this as well, “The truth is that police and civilians are members of one community. Whatever their differences are as individuals, they share the community.” Implicitly, we also have an obligation to one another to uphold shared values of respect in that community. Alexander puts it succinctly, “The police need to persuade the public that they are working together toward the same goals—to achieve safety, security, respect, and justice.” Communities that build bridges among one another neither weaponize nor overburden LEOs. Building bridges builds empathy, compassion, and dare I say joy? 

The siloing off I find in the city isn’t limited to urban areas. We often hear this mentioned in terms of ‘tribalism’ and ‘polarization’ in politics, but I’m here to tell you that politics always have been and always will be local. This “us” vs. “them” plays constantly in Georgia politics as GOOA always stresses their separation from those of us inside the perimeter and in turn, ITP folks put down their OTP peers. 

The fact is, success for Atlanta is only possible in conjunction with the success of the Port of Savannah, the internet security taught in Augusta, the inland port in Cordele, the airport in Rome, the manufacturing in LaGrange, and the good road construction (hopefully one day will be finished) where all roads seem to meet in Georgia- Macon. And like the rest of Georgia, until we know and relate to our neighbors better, Atlanta’s neighborhoods’ safety is dependent upon the LEOs that serve them. 

Also, a lot of the state leans on Atlanta to clean up its messes.

I wrote previously about a neighbor and friend whose absence of state care became my and my husband’s responsibility because the state didn’t heed the multiple police reports surrounding a group home in the neighborhood across MLK Jr. Dr. from mine. In my relatively small sphere of folks, I have become aware of not only this problematic group home across the street from me, but also the challenges of elders having the sole affordable housing option in larger socio-economically challenged families in the Booth Towers off Ponce de Leon. William Booth Towers provides 100 units of housing for low-income elderly, handicapped, and disabled persons and is located directly off of Ponce de Leon. The Towers are owned and operated by the Salvation Army and friends living there have shared with me the challenges they’ve had in large families moving in with existing residents, leading to non-residents and transient folks coming and going out of the building. This has contributed to safety and theft concerns of residents. 

Because our city and state leaders aren’t willing to address homelessness, some of the Greatest Generation is spending their Golden Years in questionably safe living spaces.

Atlanta’s focus on affordable housing (albeit it incredibly small) makes it a place where vulnerable folks come into the city seeking refuge from living outside on the street or cheap motels along the perimeter. Like many urban centers, Atlanta is this resource for the state as the state and other local governments don’t have an organized nor systematic approach to addressing homelessness. Despite what suburban and rural legislators may tell you, poverty and homelessness exist in their areas as well, it just takes the forms of trailer parks, multiple families living together in small apartments, and sleeping on friends’ couches versus sleeping on city streets. Rural poverty means service delivery is spread out, difficult to systemize, yet is no less still there.

Yet I still have this terribly deep belief in Georgia that her cities and the state can both walk and chew gum at the same time. 

We have the resources, the people, the money, the caring population to address the needs of safety AND security, but we will not be able to do so until we can get REAL HONEST about ourselves. We have to make our actions, words, and budgets match our stated goals.

We have to do more than just watch our people from camera decks high in the sky, waiting for a “gotcha” moment. The justice system should not be Atlanta’s nor the state’s answer to affordable housing, with the private prison system aligning as a boon for rural economies. The assumption that everyone is out to get us is naive at best, incredibly cynical at worst.

I didn’t get the idea that a fear of your fellow human was shared among the APD. It seems very clear the police want to interact with people in the city in positive ways-they’d like to be the resource folks need, rather than a visual overlord from afar. I also want to note that the installation of these cameras is surely a need for a police force that is already stretched thin. I don’t have the idea that the police officers that are sworn to protect and serve our city are anymore into Big Brother-like tactics than me, they’re more than likely just forced to use them to assess danger, increase likelihood of accountability, and reduce hours of labor intensive detective work trying to determine who, what, why, and where. 

It is my hope that as a society we will move to a more understanding place where guarding against one another isn’t necessary. In fact, I would wager if Georgia would get their act together and the state undergird more cities’ efforts, we might see a more unified approach to resolution of a lot of our current challenges. But first, at least in Atlanta, we have to stop fearing one another before we can work together. In doing so, maybe, just maybe, we could work with the APD instead of using them as weapons or our Big Brother answer to resolving the conflicts we’re not mature enough to resolve without harming other humans. I wish the beat cops I met on my ride along could confer some of their street smarts to some of the legislators under the Gold Dome- talking to your neighbors and working with them instead of creating “us” vs. “them” dichotomies would go a LONG way in our state.

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