September 26, 2022

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Columbus GA eyes $8M artificial intelligence camera system

6 min read

Someone stole a tire off Samuel Opoku’s sedan over the Christmas holiday while the car sat in the parking lot of his business.

Across the street from his used tire and automotive service shop on Forrest Road, trash and old mattresses are piled up in an abandoned lot. Someone was recently shot at the Circle K gas station just down the road. People at the nearby Family Dollar have been shot, too, he said.

“There’s so much evil going on right now,” Opoku said. “I have a lot of friends who are trying to move away because of how people are shooting every day.”

Local leaders are proposing a new citywide camera and artificial intelligence system to help combat crime — a move that would be a big help for business owners like Opoku, he said.

The Columbus Consolidated Government would spend roughly $8 million on technology that monitors public spaces, high-crime areas and illegal dumping hotspots.

Columbus Council is expected to vote on the first phase of the project Tuesday: $3.2 million for roughly 600 cameras in 33 different areas, including 20 cameras that will be moved around crime and dumping zones identified by the police and sheriff’s departments.

While Opoku’s shop has cameras, the areas around him could use a few.

“I would be so happy if they could put some on top of anywhere around here,” he said.

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An empty lot off of Forrest Rd. is scattered with trash on Jan. 7, 2022, in Columbus, Ga. Madeleine Cook [email protected]

The breakdown

The new system will add more cameras and give the city’s law enforcement agencies direct access to all the footage, Deputy City Manager Lisa Goodwin told the Ledger-Enquirer.

“That’s the whole issue,” she said. “Different departments have different cameras, so that’s why we needed to get on one system.”

The city has about 1,100 cameras installed throughout the city. METRA, the city’s public transportation system, and the Columbus Civic Center utilize the majority. If the Columbus Police Department or the Muscogee County Sheriff’s Office needs access to footage, they ask individual city departments, Goodwin said.

Under plans for the new system, more than 1,800 cameras would replace the old system. They would be installed in three phases. The first phase includes the 20 mobile cameras as well as the city’s parks and recreation centers. The council purchase agreement mentions Carver Park by name.

In the second phase of the project, about 600 cameras would be installed at public safety precincts and other city buildings like the health department at around $2 million. The third phase would see 645 METRA, Civic Center, public works and trade center cameras replaced at roughly $2.9 million, Goodwin said.

Most of the $8 million to fund the project would come from Columbus’ portion of the American Rescue Plan, the $1.9 trillion federal coronavirus stimulus package signed into law by President Joe Biden last year, Goodwin said.

City officials have refused to reveal exactly where cameras will be placed — including the mobile crime and dumping cameras — to not tip off criminals. Goodwin said residents should not be concerned about their privacy.

“All of these cameras will be in public places,” she said. “We’re not looking in to see what’s in your car. We’re not looking to see inside your home or business. These cameras are all in areas where they currently are and have been for years.”

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Trash gathers in a residential area on Grant Rd. in Columbus, Ga. on Jan. 7, 2022. Madeleine Cook [email protected]

How do the cameras work?

The city has worked with two contractors on the project, LaGrange-based AdapttoSolve and California-based Verkada.

Verkada provides the cameras and technology. AdapttoSolve is the general camera contractor that completed a site survey on 75 city facilities and other areas, Goodwin said.

Verkada representatives appeared before council in late November to explain how the camera system works.

The cameras are 360-degree, can see at least 100 feet away and record clear images at night. They can detect human and vehicle motion, even allowing someone to search footage for a specific shirt or car color. The system detects when a camera goes offline and notifies the city via email or text message if someone is attempting to tamper with the camera.

The mobile cameras can be moved and reinstalled in identified high crime and dumping areas. The cameras can read license plates but would not be used by the city to monitor traffic violations, Goodwin said.

Footage from the cameras is searchable and stored online. Columbus law enforcement and city employees can access the footage on iPads and cell phones using a virtual private network.

CPD and the Muscogee County Sheriff’s Office will monitor the system. The goal is to help local law enforcement leverage their limited resources, Adapttosolve’s vice president Jake Hagler told the Columbus Council.

‘You can’t bully a camera’

Sheriff Greg Countryman previously told the Ledger-Enquirer that his department has about 50 unfilled positions, including deputies, corrections officers and bailiffs.

While he’s not sure how much the cameras will help with problems caused by staffing shortages, extra sets of eyes and ears are a good thing, he said.

The department monitors around 300 cameras at city buildings and facilities, including the Government Center, the Citizens Service Center and city parks.

While Countryman didn’t specify where the new cameras might be placed, he said his department gets complaints about several areas, like spots near Cusseta Road and Dawson Street as well as the spiderweb intersection at Buena Vista Road. Data and called-in tips will influence the placement of the cameras.

“It enhances the way we investigate things now,” he said. “You can’t bully a camera. …This is a huge asset for (Columbus.) It’s going to make us a safer city, and it’s going to give some people a sense of comfort.”

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Ronzell Buckner describes an issue with illegal dumping that plagues the surrounding neighborhood, at his restaurant, Skipper’s Seafood in Columbus, on Jan. 7, 2022. Columbus Council is considering a proposal that would add hundreds of cameras around the city to catch those committing crimes like illegal dumping. Madeleine Cook [email protected]

For Ronzell Buckner, owner of Skipper’s Seafood and founder of community development organization Turn Around Columbus, the cameras represent a step in the right direction.

Behind his business on Buena Vista Road, there is trash in the streets and neighborhood yards. He lives in the Steam Mill Road area, and someone keeps piling trash at a home nearby. The new system would make a “big difference,” he said.

“Some of these people are moving here because of the fact they like Columbus. And when they get here, they start seeing all of the things going on, and they change their mind about staying here,” Buckner said. “This thing about trash and violence we have in our community, we got to work on (or) somebody else is going to eat our lunch.”

The city, Buckner said, needs to do more to address the crime and illegal dumping issues. He suggested changes to portions of the city’s enforcement code, such as allowing enforcement officers to issue citations via certified mail or leave the notice in the door.

“I think we should put more cameras out in the community,” he said. “Something’s got to be going on, and you’ve got to see what’s going on in order to correct it.”

This story was originally published January 25, 2022 6:00 AM.

Nick Wooten is the Southern Trends and Culture reporter for McClatchy’s South region. He is based in Columbus, Georgia at the Ledger-Enquirer but his work also appears in The (Macon) Telegraph and The Sun Herald in Biloxi.Before joining McClatchy, he worked for The (Shreveport La.) Times covering city government and investigations. He is a graduate of Mercer University in Macon, Georgia.

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