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Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Atlanta to revisit surveillance cameras in city vehicles following employee concerns

The Atlanta City Council unanimously decided yesterday against a plan to install surveillance cameras in some city-owned vehicles.

The proposal to launch a 120-day trial program testing the cameras will head back to finance committee after city employees raised concerns over how recorded footage could be used.

The proposed resolution would allow DriveCam, a California-based surveillance company, to install 175 cameras into city-owned vehicles to reduce the city's claims payouts. City officials told the AJC that claims stemming from collisions have climbed from $840,971 in 2009 to $1.04 million in 2011.

Beyond reducing costs, some city officials think the cameras will prevent employees from using cellphones, encourage them to drive safely, and wear seat belts. The no-cost trial period would allow City Hall to determine the cameras' effectiveness without incurring upfront costs.

But city employees expressed concerns yesterday that the cameras, which would be installed in vehicles operated by firefighters and the departments of watershed management, public works, fire, parks, and planning and community development, might be wrongfully used to discipline workers. In addition, councilmembers were surprised that a large number of cameras have already been installed and were in use.

Atlanta Professional Fire Fighters Association head Stephen Borders told council that the cameras were used as an "instrument of fear" and created a distraction. He added that Atlanta firefighters aren't opposed to cameras, but that they needed to be properly used.

"We want to be involved," Borders tells CL. "You're not going to get a buy-in from the employees unless we're involved and there's true transparency. Time and time again, we've been burned."

Jim Scerenscko, vice president of the Professional Association of City Employees, said most cameras were installed two months ago and expressed concerns that they may be used to punish poor employee behavior.

"We were told they would never been used for disciplinary reasons," Scerenscko said to council. "I know for a fact someone in watershed, who we represent, has come up against disciplinary actions. How can you discipline someone on a trial program that was never even approved yet?"

Councilwoman Felicia Moore, who chairs the finance committee, was surprised to learn the equipment was already installed in most vehicles. She proceeded to grill Deputy City Attorney Peter Andrews, who acknowledged "someone could be disciplined" based on camera footage even though City Council hadn't authorized cameras for that use.

"I was not already aware they were disciplining employees as the result of it," Moore said. "I would ask, just as one councilmember, that they not do that until there is proper authorization from the council to move forward."

Following Council's meeting, city officials told 11 Alive that the installed cameras would be turned off indefinitely.

PACE President Gina Pagnotta says she hopes that unions will have some input during the committee process and wonders whether there are enough incidents to warrant installing the cameras.

"I don't see it helping [the city] when you're writing folks up," she tells CL. "Can you imagine if it becomes a full-throttle thing? I've got a lot of employees calling and saying they don't want to drive their vehicles to do their job because they don't like the idea of a camera on them."

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