Surveillance at the scene of the crime
TECHNOLOGY | Public law enforcement taps into private security cameras
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At a public meeting at City Hall in Dayton, Ohio, earlier this year, racial tensions with police simmered. One by one, city residents stepped up to speak at a podium facing the mayor and four city commissioners, who were seated behind a long wood-paneled desk. One young man, heated and frustrated, said low-income minority residents were “over-policed, over-prosecuted, over-charged, and over-sentenced.”
Dayton Police Department (DPD), Maj. Paul Saunders, countered that assessment. He reminded the audience that whenever police receive a call for help, they respond, whatever the need: “We’re not asking ourselves, is this person black or brown or not? That’s not how it works.”
The Feb. 15 City Commission meeting was debating a motion to approve the downtown testing of Fūsus, a controversial law enforcement tool. The system sends live video feed from privately owned security cameras directly to police, an arrangement that cities across the country are increasingly adopting as a crime-solving measure. While the Dayton program wouldn’t give police 24/7 camera access, it could ultimately allow them to tap into a citywide surveillance network—and that makes some residents nervous.
Many Dayton citizens already share private video footage with police during investigations. What’s new about Fūsus is that it allows citizens to share “incident-driven” livestreamed video footage: If business owners connect their security cameras, installed in public areas, to Fūsus, they can choose to send live video to the DPD if police are ever called to respond to an emergency at their business. The video helps police know what to expect once they arrive.
Maj. Jimmy Mullins of the DPD told me how the livestreaming could work: If a robbery begins at a store, an employee can hit a panic button that activates a live video feed from store cameras to the DPD. Mullins said the video will identify the location of the store and show police what is going on. If the suspect has a weapon, police can prepare for a possible violent encounter. They can also see what the suspect looks like.
If schools use Fūsus and have an emergency, Mullins added, a teacher can hit a panic button on a cell phone app. The button immediately sends an alert and activates campus cameras for police, giving them “real-time intelligence” to figure out the most effective response.
Cities including Cleveland, Ohio; Indianapolis, Ind.; Atlanta, Ga., and Asheville, N.C., have already adopted similar public-private surveillance partnerships. In Dayton, downtown businesses have applauded the collaborative approach to public safety, according to Sandra Gudorf, president of the nonprofit advocacy group Downtown Dayton Partnership.
But others haven’t.
Critics at the February commissioners’ meeting warned that the technology, used by police, would adversely affect low-income “black and brown” communities. Theresa Haire, the Montgomery County public defender, contended that police arrest persons of color as a result of technology purporting to be incident-driven, even when those persons are not involved in the incident.
As an example, she pointed to DPD’s recently eliminated “ShotSpotter” technology. It used microphones to record and triangulate the location of any gunshot inside a 3-square-mile zone in town.
Haire said in an interview that Dayton police have stopped, questioned, and searched residents after responding to a report of a gunshot, before ultimately charging them only with nonviolent drug offenses. Her staff members have defended individuals against charges they call the “Holy Trinity”—resisting arrest, assaulting an officer, and disorderly conduct. (She said Dayton police approached individuals in a “somewhat aggressive manner,” thinking they might be armed.) While Haire didn’t suggest the ShotSpotter never helped solve a case, she said that in her experience it rarely achieved its purpose.
But Mullins pointed to ShotSpotter’s technological limitations: It provided police with only the location of a gunshot. “We go there at 2 in the morning, and if there’s one person walking in this radius, we’re gonna stop and talk to them. We’re gonna pat them down, we’re gonna frisk.” Fūsus, by contrast, would offer a potential visual of a suspect.
Greg Epps, a resident of the Westwood neighborhood and member of its Crime and Safety Committee, said residents of his “96 percent black-brown community” want the Fūsus program expanded to their neighborhood.
City commissioners ultimately approved the pilot program in a 3-2 vote. Dayton businesses in the downtown district are currently free to join the trial, which ends June 30.
Saunders said police want to make Fūsus available everywhere in Dayton. The city’s minority communities suffer a high share of crime, and he hopes Fūsus can help police there either “take out the threat or provide life-saving aid.”
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