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City Council rejects Fusus surveillance software for police use

The Columbia City Council voted 4-3 against the purchase of Fusus surveillance software for the Columbia Police Department after a contentious public hearing at its meeting Monday night.

First Ward Councilperson Pat Fowler, Second Ward Councilperson Andrea Waner, Third Ward Councilperson Roy Lovelady and Fourth Ward Councilperson Nick Foster voted against the purchase, citing concerns about transparency, privacy and equity.

“It’s really disappointing to see how cavalier we’ve become about normalizing surveillance,” Waner said.

Mayor Barbara Buffaloe, Fifth Ward Councilperson Matt Pitzer and Sixth Ward Councilperson Betsy Peters voted for the software favored by Police Chief Geoff Jones.

The vote came after almost four hours of comment that involved council members, residents and community leaders asking questions about the software and voicing both support and opposition to its implementation.

Many supporters of Fusus discussed the necessity to support the police in solving crimes in a faster and more precise manner, in addition to helping prevent or minimize crime. Opponents of the software raised concerns about potential privacy violations by the police and the lack of transparency during the process of the department’s push for the software.

However, the issue will come back to council in the coming months after Waner asked staff to draft an ordinance of oversight of surveillance procedures that could lead to eventual approval of the purchase of a similar system.

The software would allow the police department to view camera footage in real-time from businesses who opt into the program. The camera owners will have the option to grant, limit, or revoke police access at any time.

Jones responded to a question from Fourth Ward Councilperson Nick Foster, saying police would only use the cameras in the case of a major event.

“If we were to do a special operation, which we have done in the past, and use physical surveillance, the supervisor could authorize viewing a live camera in that instance,” Jones said. “But just accessing live-view cameras, we would prohibit through our policy and procedure for general surveillance. We’re not here to just surveil people.”

Foster also asked if the software would be used for festivals and other large events downtown, and Jones said that it could be used in that case regarding traffic and crowd concerns.

Jones noted that, while the software has a facial recognition feature, the police would not use it.

Fowler asked Jones if he or police officials had spoken to a variety of specific businesses and local interest groups about Fusus and their potential concerns in order to make a point about her perceived lack of community input.

Jones said that many groups and individuals had been invited to meetings regarding the software, including those which Fowler had asked him to include.

Lovelady noted that despite the department’s outreach efforts, many of his constituents in the Third Ward were not reached out to during the process and did not support the software’s implementation.

“If I can’t do anything else, I can get out and knock doors,” he said, listing some of the concerns he had heard.

Jack Howard, a public safety adviser for Fusus, fielded questions from the council. Responding to a question from Fowler, he said the program in Oak Lawn, Illinois, is most similar to the proposal put forth by Columbia police.

Lovelady asked about the time frame in which video footage will remain stored on the servers after being accessed by police. Jones said that video used as evidence in cases would be stored for the duration of the investigation and trial.

Howard said that other storage of accessed video is based on the cores that the city chooses to purchase.

“Some cores have, in general, a day or two of storage,” he said. “In the situation with Atlanta they said, ‘Hey, we would like a larger core for longer storage.’ That core does store up to 30 days. So it just depends on what core you guys want.”

Several community leaders and members of the public spoke in support of Fusus. Nickie Davis, the executive director of The District, said Fusus would be beneficial to small businesses downtown to help prevent and stop crime.

“This is something that directly impacts our businesses on a daily basis,” she said.

Columbia Public Schools Superintendent Brian Yearwood spoke about how the software could provide vital information in dangerous situations.

“As part of this ongoing relationship, we regularly share information in a time of crisis,” he said. “The valuable seconds that will be gained by allowing the Columbia Police Department to access security cameras could mean the difference between life and death for all employees and anyone in our buildings or campuses.”

There were also many opponents of the software, many of whom cited privacy concerns. Resident Kate Canterbury said she was saddened and angered that The District supported the use of the software.

“I can guarantee you, I personally will be sunshine-requesting, if this passes, every single business that gives the right to their cameras to be used by police,” she said, “because I want to know who is willing to sell me out to the council, to the police, to the city, (and) who is willing to trade my privacy (and) my children’s every day because I won’t be shopping at your business anymore.”

Local attorney Sharon Geuea Jones addressed concerns shared by many about the transparency of the software’s use and the potential for abuse. She proposed an alternative for Council to consider.

“If we pass what they’re doing in so many other communities that have adopted either community safety cameras or the Fusus system and pass what is called a community control over police surveillance, or CCOPS ordinance,” she said.

“We will be able to put safeguards at the ordinance level over how this data is used, over when and how the police can do live surveillance, over when and how they can access residential cameras and over when and how AI recognition can be used.

Waner later made a motion to ask staff to bring back legislation implementing a CCOPS ordinance, which was unanimously approved by Council.

CPRB onboarding

Council discussed the onboarding processes for new members of the Citizens Police Review Board during its pre-council work session.

City Counselor Nancy Thompson outlined how the process has worked in the past.

“So the actual onboarding is a conversation that happens... along with providing access to all of the materials,” she said. “And then historically, there was training for the CPRB that would happen on a Saturday and multiple speakers would come in on multiple topics and provide background.”

Thompson noted that onboarding can include members reviewing training materials from the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE) in addition to learning about Columbia-specific policies and practices.

Mayor Barbara Buffaloe expressed interest in scheduling a Saturday onboarding session. Fowler raised concerns regarding the impact of the law known as Senate Bill 26 on the board’s operation.

“I know from the numbers that have been stated publicly in the meeting that since the passage and effective date of Senate Bill 26 that despite there being something like 62 complaints that were filed with the police department, only one was appealed,” Fowler said.

Second Ward Councilperson Andrea Waner said that giving new CPRB members the essential onboarding should be the immediate priority.

“I think we need to onboard people in the most basic sense of ‘this is your job, this is the history of the CPRB,’ and give them the tools that they need to be able to review the appeals,” Waner said.

She added that the onboarding process should coincide with Council having a conversation about the function and model of the board.

“In the last year, we received a lot of information (from board members),” she said. “They aren’t able to do their job, and they told us what they need. They need us to explore and change and evaluate our current business in relation to that.”

Homeless planning update

City staff announced a council work session will be held on Dec. 19 that would explore the allocation of federal ARPA Covid relief funds as resources for the homeless.

According to previous reporting from the Missourian, the homeless services plan given to the city Sept. 30 proposes using ARPA funds from both the city and Boone County to support the development of a homeless opportunity campus as well as permanent housing efforts under the direction of the Columbia Housing Authority.

Members of the council praised city staff for its work and said they would like to hear more details on the plan. Ward Four Councilperson Nick Foster said that after a number of years of discussion, he is excited to see how the plan would help the unhoused community.

"I just want to say good job, well done to all those who were involved in the background of this," Foster said. "It's exciting to see it get to this point."

Harshawn Ratanpal is a senior at the University of Missouri studying journalism and economics. He is the current Print-Audio Convergence Editor, or PACE, for the Missouri News Network focusing on homelessness coverage.
The Columbia Missourian is a community news organization managed by professional editors and staffed by Missouri School of Journalism students who do the reporting, design, copy editing, information graphics, photography and multimedia.
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