District of Columbia leaders want public to know about surveillance system

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After Columbia City Council recently removed an agenda item related to the Columbia Police Department’s real-time access to private security camerasthe Downtown Community Improvement District Board of Directors continued discussions on the subject this week.

The district is seeking a separate grant for outdoor cameras, an effort unrelated to what the city is doing, district executive director Nickie Davis said at a meeting Tuesday. The police department requests a letter of support from the district, however, for its eventual purchase of Fusus surveillance software, she added.

“I spoke to (Police Chief) Geoff (Jones). I reiterated one of our biggest things is that this has to be a huge education process for the public,” he said. Davis said.

Public education would likely only take place after board approval, Davis said of his conversation with Jones.

“He’s not going to put money into this, to educate the public about something that they know or don’t know is going to happen. That’s why we haven’t really seen that education do yet. part of that,” Davis said.

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Access by Fusus, and by extension the police, in real time to private professional cameras would be voluntary and for emergency situations. The department would need prior permission to access camera feeds, a city council memo noted. It is not the same as the police requesting camera footage from business owners after an incident has occurred.

At a suggestion from District Board Member Mike McClung, the District’s letter of support should remain neutral.

“Is it better to say we let the police do the policing? If they think it would improve their policing, we have nothing against that process? It’s just another tool in their tool belt,” McClung said.

There are still fundamental privacy issues that are yet to be addressed, said district board member Sarah Johnson.

“I don’t like that they don’t do public education until it’s approved and (residents) don’t have a choice in the matter,” she said. “They should do some public education before it goes to city council because then citizens will have a chance to come forward and say what they think.

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“The people who are going to be on the cameras are the citizens.”

If the district supports the purchase of the department’s Fusus system, that could make city council approval more likely, Johnson said.

“Is our power just going to be used to maintain the status quo and not let the public know what’s going on here?” she said, adding that she found no criticism outside of law enforcement about how Fusus affects residents of a community.

Johnson would be okay if the police secured Fusus-related funding before buying the user licenses, which would allow for the public education period.

“Whatever letter might be formed today, (we) make sure to emphasize that there needs to be a huge public education process on this,” Davis said in response to Johnson.

Public education could include that there are already a number of cameras downtown, said district board member Mikel Fields.

“The cameras are already there, but that takes the cameras to a whole new level, with police being able to search them,” Johnson replied.

The district council is not granting access, but simply saying it has no problem with companies giving access, McClung said.

“I have no problem making a request for (the police) to search for the Fusus system,” McClung said.

The district council approved the submission of the letter to the city. Johnson was the only vote against.

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