Even as the Asheville Police Department wrestles with staffing shortages, it’s finding a way to get more eyes on the city’s streets. An agreement between Asheville and the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office, approved by City Council in a 4-1 vote Jan. 24, will allow the APD to use a county-operated camera network to monitor the public.
Council member Kim Roney was the sole vote against the agreement. Sage Turner, who was participating by phone, was not able to take part in the vote remotely, and Sheneika Smith was not present. The item had appeared on Council’s consent agenda, which normally contains noncontroversial or routine issues but was pulled out for a separate discussion and vote.
As explained by Assistant City Manager Ben Woody, the Fusus Unified Intelligence Platform allows real-time surveillance of security cameras located throughout Buncombe County. For an annual fee of $30,000, the APD would gain access to those cameras within city limits, with the exception of those on Buncombe County Schools property.
While Woody didn’t specify exactly how many cameras would be covered by the agreement, Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Aaron Sarver told Xpress that about 1,500 of the system’s roughly 1,800 cameras are placed at BCS locations. The vast majority of the remainder are on county-owned property, Sarver continued, with “less than 20” on the exteriors of downtown businesses.
The agreement also allows the Sheriff’s Office to place cameras on city property and link them with Fusus. City Manager Debra Campbell said cameras are currently planned for City Hall, Pritchard Park and the intersection of Lexington Avenue and Hiawassee Street; additional cameras would require separate approval by Campbell’s office.
Buncombe County would store footage from the cameras for 72 hours, automatically deleting it after that point. The city and the APD would be able to access the cameras and footage in a way “similar or the same as Buncombe County’s in terms of an internal process,” Woody said, with operation, auditing, data management and access requests managed by the Sheriff’s Office. No facial recognition software would be used to analyze Fusus footage.
City Attorney Brad Branham added that the recordings gathered by Fusus would fall under the same laws as those governing police body camera footage, which are specifically excluded from the public record.
“Generally, [with] what I will call law enforcement information, there is a process by which someone can, under certain circumstances, request to either be able to view or to have that information disclosed to them,” Branham said. “But it is a separate process from public records. Otherwise, it is restricted from public view, just like body cam footage.”
Members of the public who spoke on the item were split on whether the camera system would increase safety and reduce crime. Tiffany Davis, a resident of Hillcrest Apartments, supported the use of the system and increasing police presence in her neighborhood.
“We need a little more security over there. And we have a lot of cameras, but it seems like when something happens in our community, they never know what happened,” Davis said. “I want to know why the cameras are there. Who are they for? Because my house got shot. And I haven’t heard anything. … It doesn’t feel like a safe place.”
“The important thing from our perspective, in addition to ongoing camera surveillance when there’s an issue going on, we think that police presence is very important,” added Asheville Housing Authority Executive Director David Nash. “And we want to begin to make sure that the voices of our residents are being heard, instead of just statements in the community that our properties are overpoliced. I think they are, in fact, underpoliced in some ways.”
Meanwhile, West Asheville resident Grace Barron-Martinez said that the camera system had the potential to violate First, Fourth and 14th Amendment rights regarding free speech, unreasonable searches and seizures and privacy.
“I don’t know about you, but I’m certainly not a subject matter expert on [artificial intelligence], and I feel that with this, we are opening a Pandora’s box that we will not be able to reel back in,” she said.
Prior to her nay vote, Roney argued that placing the issue on the consent agenda hadn’t allowed enough time for Council and members of the public to discuss the program.
“My concern around this is, now we have more clarity that hundreds of residents in Asheville are going to be on camera for 72 hours with our staff without an internal policy,” she said. “I think this is a really important tool that our community may need for community safety. … What is the difference in having a community conversation about this instead of [putting it] on the consent agenda?”
“I think if [the Environment and Safety Committee] wants to take up the issue of whether or not the police department should have an additional policy about how this footage is managed on our side, or whether or not there’s even a need for that, I think go ahead and have that conversation,” responded Mayor Esther Manheimer, referencing the Council committee that oversees the APD. “But I think we can move ahead with this.”