Atlanta is the 9th largest metro area in the United States and the largest commercial and transportation hub of the southeast. It also has the busiest airport in the nation. In fact, nearly a quarter million passengers flow through every day. Atlanta is also nicknamed "The Perimeter" because Interstate 285 makes the clear distinction of the boundaries to both the inside and the outside of the city. With such a heavily populated and well-traveled area, law enforcement agencies here face fiscal challenges to provide protection and also ensure Atlanta is as safe and secure as possible.
Chief of Police Richard Pennington faces challenges similar to other major metro areas in complying with Department of Homeland Security (DHS) regulations. The goal is to protect critical infrastructure while maintaining a low crime rate.
The Atlanta Police Department holds weekly meetings for the command staff of 150 as well as the special operations and airport zone employees. Entitled "Command Operations Briefing to Revitalize Atlanta" (COBRA), meetings begin with attendees reporting to Pennington to identify areas with high criminal activity.
According to Pennington, the crime rate in Atlanta has improved from the second highest in the nation to its current ranking of 17th.
At the COBRA meetings, the overhead screens tell the tale. New crime mapping technology illustrates the increases and decreases in murders, rapes, robberies, narcotics arrests, domestic violence and gang activity. Each commander shares information, reports and intelligence from within the city and surrounding counties.
Officers also give their report to indicate exactly the type of equipment needed to reduce crime, which often changes on a weekly basis. Depending on the greatest need, meeting topics vary from car theft to gang activity to a reduction in narcotics requests.
In light of the unexpected 5 percent crime rate increase thus far in 2007, Pennington's goal is to reduce crime by 8 percent by the end of the year.
"Any increase is unacceptable and I won't tolerate it. We are going to
improve on last year's progress," Pennington says.
Though not designated as one of the "Tier One" cities, Atlanta currently receives Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) grant assistance.
Approximately $1 million was allotted to the airport between 2004 and 2006 along with funding from DHA and Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to comply with new federal regulations after September 11, 2001.
In the next round of UASI funding, Atlanta must compete with 39 other "Tier Two" urban areas for a combined $336,105,000. In Fiscal Year 2006 Atlanta received $18,660,000. The combined total of UASI funding for Atlanta in Fiscal Years 2003 to 2006 was $42,458,356. New urban areas added for 2007 include Norfolk, Virginia, Providence, Rhode Island, Tucson, Arizona and El Paso, Texas.
Like every other major city, Pennington says Atlanta needs more funding, but it isn't an excuse to let the crime rate continue to rise.
"We are definitely more attentive to Homeland Security issues," Pennington says. "We have a diverse population and a continuous flow of global travelers. Intelligence gathering and sharing is standard operating procedure here."
Maj. C.J. Davis is the first Commander of Atlanta's Homeland Security Section. With approximately $3 million in UASI funding, Davis was able to assess Atlanta's security needs for its critical infrastructure.
"We've used some UASI money to start up the department," Davis says. "We didn't have one analyst or specialized computer equipment for intelligence gathering. Now we have all that in place.
"Clearly, our biggest concerns are the airport, Centennial Park, the Georgia Dome and our railroad infrastructure," she explains. "Some of our rail lines run directly under sensitive areas. We restricted the loads they are allowed to carry, and had to reroute several lines to accommodate the change."
Atlanta is also headquarters to some of the world's biggest corporations such as Coca Cola, Bank of America, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, Delta Airlines and Turner Broadcasting, including the CNN World Center.
Law enforcement works on a "daily basis to ensure needs are being evaluated and being met," Davis adds.
The Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, commonly known as MARTA, also receives approximately $2 million annually for new security initiatives and maintenance.
Davis says the first rounds of UASI funding also assisted in setting up the
special airport unit of the Atlanta Police Department and the installation of
security cameras and perimeter fencing enhancements.
The Atlanta Downtown Improvement District (ADID) and the Atlanta Police Department originally hoped to obtain homeland security funding for a surveillance initiative to provide significant infrastructure for a video signal integration project.
However, the project did not meet the original scope guidelines. Instead, they started a program with intentions of obtaining funds to enhance the integration and video components of the surrounding area.
Currently, they are adding more privately funded cameras to the existing 14 base cameras. The goal is to link the surveillance monitoring with MidTown Alliance, MidTown Blue and Buckhead, a police-monitored surveillance system already in operation in two other major population- and commerce-dense areas.
Downtown and MidTown, both part of the Zone 5 Police Precinct, have dedicated off-duty improvement and district-funded mobile police response to surveillance sightings.
The next objective is to synchronize police efforts and incident response to link the surveillance systems of the Atlanta Police Department and ADID systems with seven other jurisdictional law enforcement agencies in downtown.
These agencies include MARTA Police, Georgia State Patrol, Federal Protective Service, GWCC Police, Georgia State University Police, Georgia-Tech Police, and National Park Service.
Additionally, common area cameras will be added in and around special events venues such as the Georgia Dome, GWCC, Philips Arena, Georgia Aquarium and World of Coca-Cola, along with other key properties in the downtown area.
With funding, this program will later expand to encompass other major
regional venues, such as Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL),
Turner Field, the Atlanta Motor Speedway, and the Arena at Gwinnett Center, with
the largest concentration of cameras in downtown Atlanta.
The ADID is working on a related initiative with the Atlanta Police Department and the Police Foundation to upgrade to the COMNET radio communications system, currently used primarily in the downtown area. The Atlanta City Worksite, for example, is an Internet-based information sharing component which will revolutionize communications downtown for daily and emergency operations.
An information sharing program such as this is extremely low-cost, and will provide a multitude of new features to incorporate video from current and future camera systems. These programs are now packaged city-wide as part of Operation Shield, sponsored by the Atlanta Police Foundation and the Atlanta Security Council, and will have a tremendous impact on their daily public safety and emergency preparedness posture.
"We are a very fortunate city to enjoy the public-private partnerships between the business communities, the city administration and police, and our other partnering law enforcement agencies, which enables us to share long-term visions and goals," states David Wardell, vice president, operations and public safety for Central Atlanta Progress and the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District.
Maj. Stan Savage, commander of the Atlanta 911 Communications Section, is always concerned about radio interoperability.
"Regionally, we cover an area from Alpharetta in the north to Palmetto in the
south, and along the Interstate 20 corridor for about 30 miles across the city,
including the airport in the southwest," says Savage. "We employ gateway
technology when there is a major incident, and it works, but there is still some
disparity among agencies," he continues. Savage adds that his department is
looking at an automatic vehicle location (AVL) system to work with its radios
without having recurring costs.
Allocating airport funds
The Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) is one of the world's busiest, with nearly a quarter million passengers traveling through every day. A special unit of the Atlanta Police Department is located at the airport and provides a very visible presence.
As the aviation security director at ATL, Richard Duncan is responsible for the entire airport infrastructure, including employees. Duncan's staff is also responsible for maintaining a safe passage for travelers at all times.
"We have over 55,000 employees here," Duncan says, and notes that all employees undergo thorough background checks. In addition, employees are encouraged to and rewarded for reporting inconsistencies with security.
"Our people go out and test — we walk around secure areas without proper identification and 94 percent of the time we are almost immediately challenged by one of our staff. That's good, but we want 100 percent."
While Duncan keeps an eye on the airport facility, the Atlanta Police Department takes care of enforcement and responds accordingly to airport-related incidents. The Department of Aviation funds the Atlanta Police Department through a combination of UASI, TSA and DHS grants totaling about $3 million per year.
Duncan's team must be responsive to unforeseen incidents as well. "We have a care team that responds to unusual events," he says.
Jam-packed airplanes, long security lines and passenger frustration dominate the news these days in the aviation industry. Herschel Grangent Jr., media relations manager at ATL and former public information officer for the DeKalb County (Atlanta) Police Department takes it all in stride.
Grangent says maintaining a calm atmosphere is necessary but sometimes things do get tense. But the special unit of the Atlanta Police Department is standing by, on alert and ready to keep the peace, just in case.
Although the airport is the size of a medium city, there is relatively little crime and the majority of incidents are minor.
Cash for K-9 protection
Sgt. Robert Bailey, head of the Atlanta K-9/ E.O.D. Unit says specialized explosive containment and disposal equipment along with highly trained dogs have been funded by a combination of TSA, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and UASI grants along with general budgetary items from the Atlanta Police Department.
More than a dozen K-9 dogs and their handlers respond to calls every day involving suspicious packages anywhere at the airport including on board an aircraft, according to Bailey. The cost of training and maintaining this specialized "team" is $100,000 a year, and is provided by the Atlanta Police Department through FAA grants.
This K-9 team consists of Senior Police Officer Derrick Davis and a 2-year-old black Labrador retriever named Sheriff. K-9 Sheriff and Davis were both trained together at Auburn University Canine Detection Training Center, in McClellan, Alabama.
Part of K-9 Sheriff's responsibilities include searching for explosives by conducting personnel screening and "air scenting" in the unsecured public areas of the airport terminal.
An example of "air scenting" is when a target odor is detected, K-9 Sheriff will sit to indicate he's found something suspicious. Sheriff also "works" an airplane as he enters each jet methodically by checking under every seat, seat pocket and overhead bin until he detects a target odor.
According to Bailey, his police unit just purchased a $70,000 bomb retrieval
robot from Allen-Vanguard engineered to maneuver down the aisle of smaller
regional jets. It is designed to retrieve objects from airplanes, confined areas
or underneath a vehicle. The Remotec item retrieval robot costs about $250,000
and Bailey considers it the "workhorse" of the fleet.
A 'model' public safety initiative
Groundbreaking construction began in January 2007 for the new Atlanta Police Department offices. Combining the police and fire department headquarters will serve as a model for public safety centers throughout the country.
The facilities will include a joint operations/emergency center and media room, and will allow the department to incorporate new technology and communication capabilities into everyday operations.
Implementing and maintaining the safety of a major metropolitan area is a large and complex undertaking. Individuals from all levels of government and law enforcement work hard every day to ensure the safety of its citizens and those visiting or just passing through.
Through the development of new strategies for managing grant funds and by adopting a variety of infrastructure security measures crime levels will be kept to a minimum, and will ultimately ensure highest standards for public safety in the Atlanta area.
Linda Spagnoli is a well-known law enforcement advocate in the areas of communication, child safety, officer safety and sex-offender tracking. Her focus is on interagency data-sharing, emergency communications and media relations. She began her career assisting school resource officers install the D.A.R.E. program in Long Island, New York, schools. Spagnoli still maintains her position as Director of Communications for Code Amber, the largest Internet distribution for Amber Alerts.