The Columbia City Council heard a presentation from a software company at its Monday night work session about technology that allows police departments to access a network of security cameras in real time.
The system, created by software company Fusus, would give the city and private businesses the option to grant the Columbia Police Department access to their surveillance cameras, according to the Monday presentation. The police would then be able to see through these cameras in real time and review the footage to aid in responding to and investigating crimes.
The Fusus system, proposed as the Columbia Connect Program in the presentation, would expedite the process of obtaining camera footage. Businesses would be able to opt in to the system and could selectively permit or restrict police access to each of the cameras they own. Once opted in, police could access cameras in the network without permission from the owners.
The program would also create a community camera registry, a map of all of the security cameras in Columbia accessible only to Columbia police, which businesses would also have to opt in to. This includes the locations of cameras not in the network, but police would not be able to view their footage, according to the presentation.
With the technology currently at their disposal, officers must obtain permission from individual businesses or the city if they want to access camera footage.
Geoff Jones, the Columbia police chief, said having to reach out to individual businesses to view their footage draws out investigations and creates room for error that Fusus would eliminate.
“What would have taken us four days or a week is now taking us minutes or hours,” Jones said. “It’s sending out a mass email as opposed to knocking on doors.”
Jones said implementing the program would not add extra cameras or require those who opt in to replace their current cameras. Instead, implementing the program would only require installing the technology with a device plugged into a business’s existing camera system.
Presenter Carlo Capano said businesses may choose whether police may always access the cameras opted into the system or whether police will only have access if the owner uses the Fusus alert function.
Fusus Alerts is an app where users can send a silent alert to the police that marks their location on a map and activates the five nearest network cameras, said Jack Howard, Fusus’ other presenter. Howard said Fusus Alerts is primarily intended for schools, but Jones could choose to allow business owners to use it as well.
Columbia police could send out text alerts to notify the community of incidents through Fusus, Howard said, and community members could use it to send tips to the police. He added the system is also able to detect gunshots and activate the five nearest cameras.
Additionally, the cameras have artificial intelligence that officers can use to search back through footage for particular objects, such as a black sedan or a license plate. The AI has no facial recognition software, and officers cannot use it to search for specific people or people of a certain race. Capano said Fusus could install AI into any surveillance camera.
Capano added that the strength of the program is that it pulls all this information into one place for easier access and faster response and would also deter crime.
“We’re able to create a message to the community that you, the community, are working with that police department, and you’re harnessing the technology that’s already out there, and you’re creating a better environment for the citizens of Columbia,” Capano said.
Several local groups sent the council letters in support of adopting Fusus.
Representatives from Columbia Public Schools and the Columbia Mall said in their respective letters that they were interested in partnering with police and adding some or all of their surveillance cameras to the Fusus network.
Chair of the Downtown Columbia Leadership Council Scott Wilson said that though he had “significant concerns about surveillance in general,” he supported adopting Fusus because businesses can choose whether to opt in.
The executive director of the Downtown Community Improvement District, Nickie Davis, said in her letter of support that she wants “a strong emphasis on public education of the system” so Columbia residents can understand how the software works.
Mayor Barbara Buffaloe asked the presenters how they would assist in disseminating information about Fusus. Capano said Fusus will work with Columbia police and its public information officers to spread information about the system. He said Fusus would also help the police department reach out to businesses in Columbia to ask whether they would like to opt in.
First Ward Councilperson Pat Fowler said she is a “hold” on Fusus until the city can engage stakeholders who are opposed to the program and get their input on how it might affect them. She pointed out that in 2010, while a majority of the city voted to install more security cameras, a majority of First Ward residents opposed adding more.
“I still think the right thing for us to do is to engage a broader group of stakeholders and make sure that we take those steps so we don’t undermine the trust that the community needs when we ultimately implement something like this,” Fowler said.
Dan Viets, president of the Mid-Missouri Civil Liberties Association, said in a letter to the council that his organization has “serious reservations and questions” about adopting Fusus. He said that although businesses choose to opt in to the program, employees and customers do not necessarily have a say.
He added that he had not seen an independent evaluation of Fusus demonstrating that the system reduces crime.
Buffaloe asked the presenters how Fusus evaluates its system’s effectiveness. Capano said Fusus’ focus is on supplying software, not collecting data. He said success stories from cities that have implemented Fusus, like Shreveport, Louisiana, are proof it works. Shreveport has tamped down on gun crime after it implemented Fusus technology, Capano said.
The police department must now return to the council with proposals for moving forward with a contract, funding the program and gathering stakeholder engagement for developing policy, Buffaloe said.