After two informational open meetings this week, the Columbia chapter of the NAACP said it is helping the city roll out surveillance technology that would allow police to have real-time access to surveillance cameras.
Chapter President Mary Ratliff said she endorses the software because the information it provides would help avoid unnecessary police stops, particularly of black people who may be stopped for bearing a passing resemblance to a suspect.
Fusus is software that Columbia Police Chief Geoff Jones plans to purchase for use in Columbia. The software allows police to view a map of registered surveillance cameras and access their video feeds in real-time. Camera owners would have to sign up for the system to allow police to see their camera locations.
The software has artificial intelligence capabilities that allow police to search for objects such as a blue hoodie or a red Ford F-150.
Sahil Merchant, Fusus’ chief strategy officer, said the software’s artificial intelligence couldn’t recognize faces or look for people of a specific race. He said the company has no plans to add facial recognition, in part because many cities that use Fusus have banned it in their policies.
Merchant said Fusus can stop racial profiling because the system can provide specific information.
“There have been many cases with minority communities where you’ve had an eyewitness who vaguely described someone and now police are attracting anyone who looks like them,” Merchant said. “We’re trying to eliminate all of that by making it about a real real person.”
On Tuesday and Wednesday, police and Fusus officials held open house-style information sessions at two locations where residents could learn more about the software and ask questions.
According to these discussions, the level of police access is determined by a business owner, who can expand, limit or revoke access at any time.
Orlando, Fla., introduced Fusus in 2020 and began adding private company cameras to the system two months ago.
Jay Draisin, captain of the Orlando Police Department’s crime center and forensic division, said Fusus can help correct negative perceptions and interactions with the police. He said because the software provides more detail to officers responding to a crime, officers are less likely to stop people who aren’t the suspect.
The Police Department will consider the public’s input at a policy and procedure meeting Wednesday from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Molly Thomas Bowden Neighborhood Policing Center.
Merchant said Fusus isn’t increasing surveillance because it’s not adding security cameras; it just allows the police to use existing cameras more effectively. Fusus would primarily integrate city and private company cameras. Some Columbia organizations such as Columbia Public Schools and Columbia Mall have indicated that they would choose the Fusus system. The trader said it’s less common for cameras in residential buildings to join the system, but individuals and apartment complexes can register if they wish.
Jones said Fusus will expedite investigations by making it easier for police to collect camera footage that currently takes officers “hours or days” to complete.
“This can be done very quickly in real time and we can really focus all of those resources on investigating and catching the villain instead of collecting camera footage, which is what we’re doing now, and it takes hours and hours and hours. ‘ Jones said.
Jones said the Columbia Police Department has no interest in using the Fusus software for general surveillance. Jones said the final policy would most likely limit the use of fusus to responding to crime and monitoring high-risk events like concerts.
Police departments can limit which officers have access to Fusus, Merchant said. Fusus has an audit feature that logs every action on the system, which Jones says the police would use to ensure the right officers are accessing and using the system properly.
Another concern about Fusus is evidence that it deters crime. At a working meeting before the council on Oct. 3, Fusus representative Carlo Capano told the city council that Fusus’ focus is on delivering software, not collecting data, and that the best evidence of the software’s effectiveness is reports from cities that introduced them.
The trader said no town that adopted Fusus got rid of him. He said the company prefers to demonstrate effectiveness through anecdotal evidence rather than numbers, as statistics are “just one piece of the larger puzzle of policing”.
Jones said if Columbia takes over Fusus, police would use their record management system to track how many crimes Fusus helps solve.
“I tend to approve of it,” Foster said. “I think the only thing I want to see is what policies and procedures we develop for using the system.”