A look into Operation Shield—Atlanta’s own surveillance network making it the most surveilled city in the U.S.
ATLANTA – On June 21, the Atlanta City Council adopted an ordinance sponsored by Councilwoman Andrea Boone (District 10) that would help expand surveillance in the City of Atlanta and its residents through its existing program, Operation Shield. The ordinance authorizes a donation of $56,000 from the District 10 Consulting/Professional Services account and the District 10 Carry Forward account to the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF) to purchase security cameras for District 10 and other purchases.
This ordinance is not the first of its kind. In a January 19 ordinance, Boone, along with Councilmembers Joyce Sheperd (District 12), Carla Smith (District 1), Marci Collier Overstreet (District 11), and Cleta Winslow (District 4), gave APF a total of $175,000 from their district funds to purchase security cameras for their respective districts. On March 15, city council adopted another ordinance by Councilmembers Overstreet, Boone, and Michael Julian Bond to install security cameras in the Cascade Springs Nature Preserve which is located on the border of Districts 10 and 11 on Cascade Road in Southwest Atlanta. Since last summer, many surveillance options and equipment, including cameras and license plate readers, and donations have been given to the APF for Operation Shield.
In April, Invest Atlanta approved over $2.3 million of tax allocation district funds to be given to APF for cameras and license plate readers. Seven tax allocation districts (TADs), including the Campbellton Road TAD, Eastside TAD, Hollowell-ML King TAD, Metropolitan TAD, Perry Bolton TAD, Stadium TAD, and Westside TAD, will fund the purchases. These cameras are part of a network of more than 10,000 publicly and privately owned surveillance cameras throughout the city.
The Operation Shield network allows the Atlanta Police Department (APD) to utilize those cameras as well as license plate readers and communications outlets to monitor citizens and crime in Atlanta. The APF claims Operation Shield is meant to help deter crime and increase the capacity to solve crimes. The APD, APF, many city council members, and mayoral candidates have apparently all jumped on the increase in violent crime as a selling point to convince citizens, business owners, and other Atlanta-based civic programs to join the operation, particularly in areas like Buckhead, which have gotten the most attention and funding.
In June, Georgia Power and the City of Atlanta announced their One Atlanta – Light Up the Night initiative that expands on Operation Shield and their Smart Cities partnership. According to Smart Cities Connect, Georgia Power, Current by GE, AT&T, and Intel are working together to update Atlanta’s existing streetlights with a sensor-enabled data network. The new One Atlanta program received a boost this week as part of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ Anti-Violence Advisory Council recommendations. The initiative will allow 10,000 more of Georgia Power’s multi-node LED lights installed throughout the city. The partnership combines technology from GE, Genetec, AT&T, CivicSmart, and research from both Georgia Tech and Georgia State University. The four-function nodes include a lighting component, ShotSpotter detection, two cameras, and a CivicSmart function that alerts parking control officers when vehicles are illegally parked. Additionally, Georgia Power has an Operation Shield partnership with the APF for cameras and license plate readers called SiteView.
Despite another budget increase for the APD, more APF fundraising (including for the newly proposed 150-acre police training facility that comes with a price tag of over $80 million), more cameras, and license plate readers, violent crime in Atlanta has not gone down. Data for comparison for 2020 was not available at the time of this publication. As a resident, many questions arise about these recent ordinances, donations, purchases, and existing partnerships. For example, what happens with all of the data collected? Who’s funding all of these expansions for Operation Shield? And, if crime rates aren’t going down, what is the real reason for the demand for additional surveillance?
History of Operation Shield
Operation Shield was launched in April 2007 under then-mayor Shirley Franklin and then-police chief Richard Pennington and began with less than 20 cameras only surveilling downtown Atlanta. With the intention to expand the program to more than 10,000 cameras, the Atlanta Police Foundation quickly surpassed its goal by expanding the video integration system each year. This system allows different types of publicly and privately owned cameras and camera software to all be monitored by Atlanta police officers. On the APF website, an undisclosed tax-deductible fee is required to join Operation Shield for purchasing or leasing cameras from APF or one of its partners.
Officers monitor cameras from city-owned facilities, private businesses, neighborhoods, Atlanta area colleges and universities, Hartsfield Jackson Atlanta International Airport, and 150 schools in the Atlanta Public Schools system. There are also thousands of license plate readers mounted on patrol cars, mobile units, and light poles provided by Georgia Power. They also communicate with private security forces throughout the city via a two-way ultra-high frequency radio network called ComNet.
Money is always a key factor in police operations like this. According to public records and press releases, our research shows that Atlanta Committee for Progress, Georgia Power, city council, and private companies like camera vendor Flock Group, Inc., have all donated money to the APF for Operation Shield equipment or purchased and donated cameras and license plate readers directly. In May, the City of Atlanta entered into a three-year partnership with Flock Group, Inc., as a camera and license plate reader vendor. Flock Group, Inc., is an Atlanta-based start-up that provides cameras and license plate readers to more than 1,200 cities in the 38 states.
Operation Shield is monitored at the Loudermilk Video Integration Center, which is located on Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta. The aforementioned facility was renamed when R. Charles Loudermilk Sr. made a $1 million donation to the APF. Robin Loudermilk, son of R. Charles Loudermilk, Sr., is chairman of the APF. The Loudermilk Family Foundation, like the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, are regular donors to the foundation and sponsors of APF events like Crime is Toast and the Blue Jean Ball.
Since joining APF in 2005 as president and CEO, Dave Wilkinson has helped the foundation complete multiple multi-million dollar fundraising campaigns.
The already exorbitant amount of surveillance of Atlanta citizens is always concerning. As previously reported, Atlanta ranks as the most surveilled city in the U.S. and among the most surveilled in the world. According to a February 2021 report from Cybernews, Comparitech researchers found that while Chicago has the most cameras, Atlanta is the most surveilled with 48.93 cameras per 1,000 people. Surveillance cameras include public CCTV, mobile surveillance trailers, traffic cameras, and privately owned cameras whose feeds are shared with the police department. A breakdown of how the data was compiled also shows that even if the 12,800 CCTV cameras were not counted, Atlanta would still be the most surveilled city with 23.68 cameras per 1,000 people.
Moreover, this amount of surveillance raises red flags around privacy and over-policing of Black and brown residents. Pilot programs like the ShotSpotter detectors were rolled out in a five-mile radius of Atlanta’s Westside near the Mercedes-Benz stadium, as well as an initial test site of the Georgia Power LED lights on Joseph E. Lowery Boulevard. Both are historically predominantly Black areas in Atlanta. There is also extensive documentation and reporting on the effects of over-policing in similar communities, including the disproportionate criminalization and drastically lower property values. These initiatives and programs seem to continue that trend.
According to the standard operating procedures of the APD, video surveillance data is stored for 14 days while license plate reader data is stored on their servers for up to one year. Storage is contingent on whether or not the data can be used as evidence of a crime. However, data from neighborhoods, businesses, and individuals with cameras directly from Flock Group, Inc., is stored on their Amazon Web Service servers for up to 30 days.
Residents have the right to request their car’s license plate data not be logged on Operation Shield or Flock Group servers. However, Flock Group and the APF warn that in the event of an incident involving someone’s vehicle, there will be data stored to use to help solve the crime. But with reports and concerns of unnecessary tracking and mistaken identities, the option to opt out could offer some solace to residents.
The APF, APD, and City of Atlanta also partner with Microsoft on multiple policing and public safety initiatives. The initiatives range from machine learning software for tracking to Domain Awareness Systems and cloud technology. Microsoft, which now owns multiple properties in Atlanta, has also begun developing and marketing technology that goes a step further than just gathering data from social media posts and daily activities for criminal profiles. Like a scene from Minority Report, Microsoft is using predictive analytics to determine whether or not people may commit crimes in the future.
Multiple studies and reports have been produced concerning law enforcement agencies’ usage of Microsoft’s Azure Cloud and facial recognition software. MIT Media Lab researcher Joy Buolamwini’s study was the subject of the Netflix documentary, Coded Bias, and determined that facial recognition software like Microsoft’s Azure Face Service does not see dark-skinned faces accurately. The APD tested Clearview AI’s facial recognition software in 2020.
Smart City technology, like CCTV, can and should have positive impacts on people, cities, and the environment. The technology has been shown to have major impacts on transportation efficiency, environmental changes, water, and energy usage. Smart management will be at the forefront of municipal systems in the coming decades as 68% of the world’s population is projected to live in cities by 2050. However, sinking billions of dollars into public safety initiatives instead of smart infrastructure, smart healthcare, or smart energy is ignoring current trends in science as well as root causes of crime. Policing strategies and surveillance programs like Operation Shield will not only fail to repair the climate crisis or our current public health crisis, but will increase policing in already over-policed communities that are already impoverished by increasing development, gentrification, and displacement.
This report was compiled using publicly available information.