In February 2019, the Office of the Independent Police Monitor (OIPM) coordinated a tour of the city’s Real Time Crime Center (RTCC) for concerned criminal justice advocates, organizations, and community members. The RTCC is a direct result of former Mayor Landrieu’s $40 million Citywide Public Safety Improvement Plan, which allows city employees and law enforcement officials to view 527 city-owned cameras 24/7 to “provide critical information to first responders in the field and to assist with investigations of criminal activity or quality of life concerns.” After that tour, some of those same community-based organizations and nonprofits formed the Eye on Surveillance Coalition (EOS) to halt our local government’s expansion of surveillance tools, explore evidence-based anti-surveillance options for public safety through community input, and protect vulnerable communities from potential harm associated with government surveillance.
Surveillance has a distinct and deeply troubled history rooted in racism and white supremacy, dating back to the 17th century with slave passes, which functioned as a means to identify enslaved Africans by “giving the dates and destination of the carrier’s travel,” as outlined in Christian Parenti’s The Soft Cage: Surveillance in America From Slavery to the War on Terror. This antebellum-era form of identification was followed up by the lantern laws of the 1800s, where enslaved people were instructed to carry lanterns if found traversing after dusk and unaccompanied by a white person. We see those same values play out today on our streets, in the form of “broken window” policing, the FBI’s investigation of Black Lives Matter movement members as “Black Identity Extremists,” the RTCC’s proactive use in police investigations, etc.
The City of New Orleans has few limitations or restrictions on what types of surveillance technology it can use, and currently no process for oversight. Although the RTCC’s internal policy (only four pages in length) forbids the use of facial recognition technology, other law enforcement agencies like the Louisiana State Police and FBI can request surveillance footage from the NOPD and then utilize their own facial recognition software on it. This is particularly worrisome; facial recognition has high rates of error, particularly among black and brown women, as found during a 2018 study conducted by MIT. The RTCC uses a $2.8 million software called BriefCam that has facial recognition capabilities, though the City states it isn’t in use. The software can detect, track, and identify people and objects from video, including: men, women, children, clothing, bags, vehicles, animals, color, and more. Along with BriefCam, taxpayers pay $3.8 million annually for the RTCC’s operations.
On June 18, Councilmember-at-large Jason Williams introduced Ordinance 33021, which proposes to slow the City’s expansion of surveillance technology, as well as increase oversight and transparency regarding the use of surveillance as a public safety measure. The ordinance proposes to ban not only facial recognition technology, but also new surveillance technologies like new Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPRs), cell site simulators, etc. The ordinance also requires that proposals to implement new types of surveillance allow 30 days for public comment and a city council vote before implementation, as well as annual audits on the City’s surveillance use. EOS has spent the last year authoring this ordinance, collaborating with community stakeholders and anti-surveillance organizers nationwide to create a policy that begins the process of divesting valuable public resources from surveillance, while also holding the City accountable for its use of these resources for surveillance.
Surveillance has been firmly and strategically placed in the toolkit of not only policing but also criminalizing black, brown, and marginalized communities for a very long time. Unfortunately, this is not something lost on New Orleans as the technology is ripe for misuse. The Traffic Camera Safety Program (TCSP) has operated within city limits since 2007. The Office of the Inspector General concluded in a recent report that the program issued tickets in school zones when schools weren’t in session and was in violation of the local ordinance in addition to other offenses. In 2017 alone, the program issued over 400,000 citations, estimating $24 million in revenue for the City.
A year later, The Lens reported on the case of Clint Carter, who was arrested for allegedly conducting a drug transaction, according to the observations of a “known undercover officer” listed in the police report detailing his arrest. It’s still unknown if this officer was present but Mr. Carter’s public defender, Laura Bixby stated, “The police were very unclear about whether this ‘known undercover officer’ was actually on the scene or whether he was at the real time crime center watching the cameras, or somewhere else entirely.” No drugs were found in the vicinity. Nearly a year after Mr. Carter’s arrest, two cameras bearing NOPD logos were found outside the former home of Active Solutions, LLC’s vice president and chief operations officer, Jeff Burkhardt. Interestingly enough, Active Solutions supplies and installs crime cameras for the City and Burkhardt is currently separated from his wife. The cameras were mysteriously removed within 24 hours of The Lens contacting Mr. Burkhardt for comment on their story. And just last month, the RTCC’s Communications Chief, Adam Brickeen, was suspended for social media posts supporting violence against peaceful protesters, displaying far right wing theories regarding antifa’s involvement in recent uprisings across the country and COVID-19’s introduction into the U.S. These three examples highlight several forms of abuse that privacy advocates have been raising for years regarding surveillance tech that neither includes community-led safeguards nor benefits its members.
With your support—and following in the organizing efforts of cities like San Francisco, Oakland, Cambridge, Northampton, etc.—New Orleans can be the first city in the South to ban the use of facial recognition technology. The proposed policy establishes a public hearing and approval process for the use or expansion of any surveillance technology. It also ensures that people’s private information—including their immigration status—is only collected when absolutely necessary and, if collected, is not shared with or sold to other entities. City departments that use surveillance technologies will also have to report on the use of these technologies annually, describing if any civil liberties were compromised and the cost to taxpayers. Given the recent cyber attacks, it is imperative that the City takes steps like this to minimize the amount and type of data it may expose about residents.
The facial recognition ban will be heard by the Smart and Sustainable Cities Committee on Wednesday, July 8 and will then be voted on by the full council on Thursday, July 16. With the mounting evidence of racial bias, the lack of privacy protections, major inaccuracies leading to the potential arrests of innocent citizens, and costly investment in tech that doesn’t keep our community safe, we ask that you submit a public comment supporting Ordinance 33021 banning the use of facial recognition software.
For more on the Eye On Surveillance Coalition, go to eyeonsurveillance.org.
The Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MaCCNO) is a broad-based coalition and registered 501c3 non-profit corporation that collaborates with, organizes, and empowers the New Orleans music and cultural community to preserve and nurture the city’s culture, to translate community vision into policy change, and to create positive economic impact.
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