Atlanta’s surveillance network keeps growing, and growing, and…

How did Atlanta become one of the world’s most watched cities?

Atlanta’s surveillance network

Illustration by Matt Love

Roughly 3,300 public and private surveillance cameras feed into a downtown office staffed by Atlanta Police Department officers. By the end of 2021, that all-seeing network is expected to grow by roughly 250 cameras.

How did Atlanta become one of the world’s most watched cities?
In 2007, the Atlanta Police Foundation, the private nonprofit that supports city police programs, launched Operation Shield. Funded by the business and philanthropic communities, the multimillion-dollar initiative’s goal was to create the Loudermilk Video Integration Center (VIC), a $5 million central hub where the Atlanta Police Department could monitor public and private cameras to spot suspicious activity and possibly deter crimes, as well as to expand the city’s existing surveillance network from 17 cameras to thousands. (For a period, the center could access more than 12,000 feeds, but the number dropped when public and private entities updated to systems that were incompatible with APD’s.) Private shopping centers and offices can connect their cameras to the network for a tax-deductible fee paid to the Atlanta Police Foundation.

Do other cities have lots of cameras?
Yes, but less so. According to technology research firm Comparitech, Atlanta has 48.93 cameras per 1,000 people, making it the most surveilled city in the United States and the seventh most surveilled city in the world. (The firm says Atlanta’s camera count is 24,800 if cameras in MARTA vehicles and stations, schools, and interstates are included.) The Atlanta City Council regularly approves the purchase of additional cameras, as does Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development arm.

Do cameras help deter crime?
The Atlanta Police Foundation has claimed that crime drops by 25 to 50 percent in areas where cameras have been installed, though they are reassessing that statistic based on recent crime trends and the effects of new APD programs. The Marietta Police Department has claimed cameras help reduce nearby crime by 35 percent. However, the ACLU has cited evidence that such networks are sometimes not effective and that relying on them can lead to targeting minorities disproportionately. Policing experts have also said that cameras work best when combined with other crime-prevention strategies like increased patrols.

How many of the cameras actually work?
Atlanta police spokesperson Steve Avery says VIC officers check every camera’s status twice a week, and that the percentage of nonworking cameras had dropped from 18 percent in January to roughly 10 percent in August. Earlier this summer, Atlantans were shocked to learn that nine cameras in and around Piedmont Park weren’t functioning correctly when Midtown bartender Katherine Janness and her dog were killed there. City officials said the 13-year-old cameras operated by the Parks department used outdated technology and were not connected to the VIC. (APD says its cameras in the area were functioning properly.) According to Atlanta Intown, officials said they were working with the faulty cameras’ vendors to recover footage. The killing and subsequent public outrage spurred the City Council to request that APD study installing more cameras in public parks and other city facilities. The network grows.

This article appears in our November 2021 issue.