Birmingham City Council

Eyes in the Sky: Birmingham Partners With Alabama Power, JeffCo Sheriff’s Office for New Surveillance Program

The city of Birmingham will be installing surveillance cameras to help combat crime. (Source: Jonathan McIntosh/Flickr Commons)

Big Brother might be watching you.

That’s the intended message, at least, of a new agreement between the City of Birmingham and Alabama Power Co. that will allow for the installation of nearly 100 surveillance cameras at undisclosed points throughout the city.

The cameras are part of a pilot program intended to deter crime in Birmingham neighborhoods and to provide data to the Jefferson County Metro Area Crime Center, which serves as a communications hub for 16 local law enforcement agencies.

The cameras are intended to combat violent crime in the city, which has seen a marked uptick in violent crime — homicides in particular — since 2015.

The project was developed jointly by Mayor Randall Woodfin’s office, the city council’s public safety committee and Alabama Power, but the MACC will receive and monitor all of the footage generated by the cameras. It’s part of a move toward greater regional cooperation among law enforcement agencies, said Hunter Williams, who chairs the public safety committee.

“This is the first time we’ve had cooperation like this between the Birmingham Police Department and the sheriff’s office,” he said. “This is a good example of government working together, which is the best use of taxpayer dollars.”

The six members of the Birmingham City Council present during Tuesday’s meeting passed the measure unanimously after spending nearly an hour in an executive session, which was closed to the public. The Alabama Open Meetings Act allows the council to meet privately “to discuss security plans, procedures, assessments, measures, or systems.”

That privacy was intended to keep the location of the cameras secret, making it more difficult for criminals to simply avoid them. The initial wording of the council’s ordinance said that the cameras would be located in the city’s Central Park, Ensley, Gate City and Kingston neighborhoods. But Williams said after the meeting that the contract’s language had been changed during the executive session so that it did not name specific neighborhoods, giving the Birmingham Police Department more flexibility.

“We want the Police Department to be able to move the cameras as crime trends change,” he said.

Three different types of cameras are included in the contract — 24 will be pan, tilt, and zoom cameras; 17 will be dome cameras; and 54 will be license plate recognition cameras. The 94 cameras will be mounted on 64 power poles throughout the city, with some poles holding multiple camera types.

The license plate recognition cameras, Williams said, differ significantly from the type of traffic camera typically used to identify cars that commit traffic violations.

“This system was not designed and has no ability to do traffic enforcement whatsoever,” he said. The cameras will be focused on identifying vehicles that may be involved in other crimes.

The cameras are expected to be installed within the next 90 days. The program is initially expected to cost the city $672,000 annually, paid in installments of $56,000 per month. Williams said the program will be open to expansion.

“It creates an infrastructure that allows neighborhood associations to buy in” if they want to install cameras in their neighborhoods, he said.

The official press release from the City Council directs citizens who wish to see the entire contract between the city and Alabama Power to request it from the Office of the City Attorney through a Freedom of Information Act Request. You can find a copy of the contract that was provided to councilors Friday here.