Photograph by Caroline Kilgore
As it reaches the fifth floor of a nondescript Downtown high-rise, the elevator chimes open to a waiting area, modern and clean, with exposed ductwork, tall windows, and sleek, silver vinyl chairs. But that’s where the welcome ends. There is no smiling receptionist, just a foreboding pair of gray metal doors and a wall-mounted retinal scanner—a biometric lock to protect the vital machinery within.
Our police escort leans forward, peering into the scanner’s lens, not blinking, until the latch clicks and the door whooshes open. The lobby’s hush gives way to frenetic commotion. At the bullpen of phone stations, operators with headsets are at the ready. We’re in the 911 call center, Atlanta’s ears. In the back of the room are its eyes—a wide screen, ten feet tall, flanked by two fifty-inch monitors, all displaying a patchwork of camera feeds looking down on traffic-choked intersections and sidewalks throughout the city. In the shadowy foreground, twelve computer monitors show the same, three apiece, to the four uniformed police officers remote-patrolling their way through eight-hour shifts.
This is the Atlanta Police Department’s Video Integration Center (VIC), where coppers walk wired beats, scanning for signs of trouble. Of course, with more than 1,200 cameras patched in and only eight eyes on the monitors, trying to catch a foul deed or accident as it happens is like sitting at the world’s tightest slot machine—though officers have a highlight reel of spotted fender benders and street fights. As Lieutenant Leanne Browning points out, instead of spotting crime as it happens, the VIC is more useful for discovering details after the fact. Indeed, as of next month, the system will have been fully integrated with its suitemate, 911, so any call will automatically trigger the nearest camera to put eyes on the scene.
Although there aren’t solid stats on VIC as a deterrent, local authorities are so pleased with Little Brother that they can’t wait for him to grow up from 1,200 cameras today to more than 10,000 in the next five years, putting Atlanta in league with most-watched cities like New York and London. And according to Dave Wilkinson, president of the Atlanta Police Foundation, we’ll be ahead of those cities in terms of how we’re paying for surveillance. The majority of the cameras the VIC now patches into are private—owned by businesses, neighborhood associations, and individuals—as are a vast majority of the 8,800 cameras APD hopes to add, not including those controlled by schools and other public entities that won’t need to be paid for by the city. That’s not to say city coffers won’t be tapped—like the $1 million appropriated for surveillance of parks and rec centers. But Wilkinson says most city money and grants will go to lay the cable, so to speak, to let the VIC tap into private feeds and cover the metro area.
For now, the silent sentries walk their beats from office chairs, eyes scouring stop-and-go intersections and bustling street corners. They watch, looking for regulars and keeping tabs on strangers like any everyday cop.
More than 1,200 Cameras currently wired into the VIC
75% Estimated cameras in the VIC that are privately owned
10,000 Cameras the VIC hopes to tap into in the next five years
$350,000 Amount city will spend per year for the next three years to install cameras in parks
This article originally appeared in our May 2013 issue.