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New Orleans Police Appear to Use Surveillance to Initiate Investigations

City officials say its vast network of cameras are simply a tool when responding to 911 calls and complaints of criminal activity. But several cases suggest the system serves an additional purpose.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown/Photos from Getty.

In late January, New Orleans police officer April Augustine watched Raymond Robinson as the 26-year-old got out of his Volkswagen Beetle carrying a small package in his left hand.

But Augustine was not at the scene. She was inside the city’s Real Time Crime Center, where footage from a sprawling system of more than 400 surveillance cameras hanging from telephone poles and business awnings feed to screens monitored 24/7 by civilian employees in the city’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness who are tasked with spotting crime.

The officer surveilled Robinson as he climbed into another man’s vehicle and exited without the package he removed from his trunk. Robinson then crossed the street and walked into a corner store. Believing that she had observed a drug transaction, Augustine placed a call to officers Brandon Abadie and Darius McFarland who were patrolling nearby.

Minutes later, the officers walked Robinson out of the store in handcuffs and sat him on the curb. In the police report, they noted that they observed “vegetation” on Robinson’s pants that appeared to be marijuana. Next, the officers called the K-9 unit to search his car. After the sniffing dog indicated it detected something, police searched Robinson’s vehicle and found drugs. He was then hit with multiple felony drug possession charges.

The Robinson case falls apart

On March 28, Robinson entered a not guilty plea in the case. He was then jailed at the Orleans Justice Center as he awaited trial. But on May 8, Robinson’s case took a dramatic turn when a judge ruled to suppress all the evidence against him. In her motion to suppress, Robinson’s attorney, Lauren Sapp of the Orleans Public Defenders office, claimed that police unlawfully searched his vehicle. The core of Sapp’s argument was that the officers did not observe Robinson committing a crime, so they had no right to take him into custody and search his car.

“Police are not allowed to guess,” Sapp told The Appeal. “They need reasonable suspicion, they need actual indicators of criminal activity. There was nothing to support that Mr. Robinson was engaging in anything criminal. At the time when Mr. Robinson was approached and handcuffed by police, he was guilty only of driving, sitting, standing, walking, and being Black at the same time.”

In his ruling, the judge stated that the officers lacked probable cause to arrest Robinson because “reasonable suspicion did not exist to support [Robinson] had committed a crime,” and ordered the evidence against him be suppressed.

“This court certainly recognizes that the police are allowed to approach anyone at anytime and engage in conversation. This is not what happened,” the judge wrote. “In this case the police entered [the store] and immediately grabbed and handcuffed the defendant and escorted him outside the store.”

The state opposed the judge’s ruling. In their response to the motion to suppress, prosecutors from the Orleans Parish district attorney’s office argued that police had the authority to call the K-9 unit, and after the dogs indicated they smelled something inside the car, they had probable cause to search the vehicle. The prosecutors appealed the decision to the Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal. But the higher court sided with the judge.

Following the denial by the appeals courts, Orleans Parish prosecutors made one final effort to get the judge’s decision overturned at the Louisiana Supreme Court. They lost again and the evidence remained suppressed. On May 21, the Orleans DA’s office dropped all the charges against Robinson.

The DA’s office declined to comment for this article. In response to a request for comment, a spokesperson for the New Orleans Police Department said, “NOPD does not oversee the Real Time Crime Center cameras.” The spokesperson referred all questions about the crime cameras to the Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.

Sapp told The Appeal that what happened in the Robinson case was “nothing new,” adding that the cameras “have already been found to violate the constitutional rights of many clients our office has represented.”

“By virtue of their placement, the cameras function as a panopticon focusing its gaze on our most vulnerable communities, primarily those with predominantly African American and low-income residents,” she said.

The outcome in the Robinson case could set a precedent for how New Orleans police are permitted to conduct investigations stemming from observations made by law enforcement personnel at the Real Time Crime Center. However, the case already stands out as the latest example of a shift in how New Orleans law enforcement uses surveillance to fight crime.

Crime drops, surveillance increases

New Orleans appeared to be shrinking the footprint of its criminal legal system—its jail population fell from nearly 4,000 in 2009 to approximately 1,100 in May of this year—but the city has been making major investments in surveillance and policing.

Starting in 2012, police used a software program provided by the data-mining company Palantir to to attempt to trace people’s ties to local gangs. Then, in 2017, the city’s Real Time Crime Center was created as part of former Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s $40 million crime prevention project aimed at lowering the city’s crime rate. In 2018, 146 people were killed in New Orleans, a decline from recent years (there were 175 murders in 2010). As part of the plan, Landrieu said he sought to install surveillance cameras across 20 New Orleans neighborhoods.

The ACLU estimates that there are 50 million surveillance cameras in the United States and several other cities around the country have undertaken projects similar to the surveillance system in New Orleans. Last month, Detroit announced that it would spend more than $10 million to install 500 new cameras. The Chicago Police Department has developed several video surveillance applications, including software “already able to process and provide notification functionalities such as … face capture and match.” In December 2017, the City of Orlando began testing a face surveillance program with Amazon Web Services. The pilot program with the internet retailer is scheduled to run until July. On May 22, Congress held a hearing on facial recognition technology where Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York asked:  “So, we have a technology that was created and designed by one demographic that is only mostly effective on that one demographic and they’re trying to sell it and impose it on the entirety of the country?”

Since the project’s inception in 2017, New Orleans officials have maintained that the city’s surveillance network is a “complaint-based” system meaning that after a call comes in alerting police about a possible criminal incident, a camera operator inside the Real Time Crime Center could be asked to check for possible surveillance footage in the area of the reported activity. Asked by The Appeal if there have been cases where the camera operator initiated an investigation while watching a camera at the crime center, LaTonya Norton, a spokesperson for Mayor LaToya Cantrell, said in an email, “Daily operations at the RTCC center around software connected to the 911 call center.”

“When a call for service comes in, the software automatically alerts Crime Center technicians to cameras near the incident,” Norton said. She added that police and other public safety officials may also access historical or real-time footage to manage major special events or investigative operations.

The Robinson case, however, suggests that New Orleans police are also using the system to initiate investigations. In his ruling to suppress the evidence, the judge noted that “no explanation was given to why [Robinson] needed to be handcuffed in the store.”

This court can safely assume that the aforementioned arrest was based solely on what was observed on the crime camera,” the judge wrote.

Skepticism rises

The Robinson case is not the only recent example where the Orleans Public Defenders office believes police have used the crime cameras to initiate investigations.

Earlier this year, The Lens reported that New Orleans resident Clint Carter was arrested and charged after police said they observed him making a “hand-to-hand” drug transaction. In the police report, the department said an undercover officer observed Carter throughout the day because of complaints of drug activity in the area. The report says the officer saw Carter reach into his pants, pull out an object, and hand it to another person. But when police pulled up to the scene and arrested Carter, they did not find any drugs.

Laura Bixby, Carter’s attorney from the Orleans Public Defenders, told The Lens that police were “very unclear” about whether the undercover officer “was actually on the scene or whether he was at the Real Time Crime Center watching the cameras, or somewhere else entirely.”

At trial, the state never called the officer to testify. Prosecutors did, however, turn over surveillance footage that showed a camera pointed directly at Carter and zooming in on him during the incident.

Carter was acquitted, but he remains in prison on a parole violation stemming from his arrest during which brass knuckles were found on him.

Bixby told The Appeal that her office is starting to see an increasing number of cases involving surveillance footage from the crime cameras. The new cases, in turn, are straining the already beleaguered public defenders office. The New Orleans Advocate reported in May that the public defender’s office announced that it would institute a hiring freeze and stop contracting out conflict cases to private attorneys because of a projected $400,000 revenue shortfall.

Bixby said the office’s investigators are already “overworked” and can’t drive out to the scene of every client’s case “in hopes that a camera might be there” with potentially exculpatory evidence.

Oversight remains an issue

After working on Carter’s case, Bixby filed a public records request with the city seeking a map with the locations of its crime cameras. The request was denied after the city cited an exception in public records law, saying that the cameras were used for terrorism prevention. Undeterred, Bixby approached the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center, who filed a lawsuit on her behalf in February.

Last month, a district court judge for the Orleans Parish ruled in Bixby’s favor and ordered the city to turn over the map. The judge wrote that the city provided “no evidence” that the “publicly-visible cameras are used in the prevention of terrorism.” The New Orleans Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness “is not one of the investigatory or law enforcement agencies covered” by the terrorism exception, according to the judge. “[NOHSEP] is not a police department. It neither investigates nor prosecutes crimes,” the judge wrote.  The city is appealing the decision.

“It’s great that we won and made some good law,” ACLU attorney Bruce Hamilton told The Appeal. “The judge’s ruling is in line with what we were hoping for.”

If the courts ultimately rule in the public defender’s and the advocates’ favor, it will be considered a win for transparency. However, it is unlikely to curb the city’s desire to expand its surveillance system.

The mayor’s office told The Appeal that it hopes to add 50 cameras this year. In 2018, the city also announced a plan called SafeCam Platinum, which allows some owners of private security cameras to feed their cameras into the Real Time Crime Center. The initiative could eventually add some 6,000 camera feeds.

As New Orleans expands its network of crime cameras, advocates question whether the city is employing facial recognition technology as part of its monitoring. The technology has come under increasing scrutiny by privacy advocates and even city governments: In mid-May, San Francisco banned the use of facial recognition software by the police and other city agencies.

Mayor Cantrell has been adamant that the city does not use facial recognition, but last year New Orleans announced a deal with Briefcam, a program that can recognize certain attributes captured on camera and track them throughout the city. For example, if a person was seen wearing a red hat on video from one camera, Briefcam has the capabilities to search other footage in the system for that hat.

Norton, the mayor’s spokesperson, told The Appeal that the Real Time Crime Center does not use facial recognition technology. However, Norton said that “relevant video can be shared with public safety agencies as requested for a legitimate public safety purpose.” When asked if the city is aware of any other law enforcement agencies running the footage through facial recognition technology, Norton declined to answer.

Another overarching concern amongst many in New Orleans is the lack of oversight of the city’s surveillance system. The police department is under a federal consent decree, and an independent monitor has been appointed to review certain policies and practices within the department. However, because the crime center is operated by the city’s homeland security office, its activities are outside the monitor’s jurisdiction.

Marvin Arnold, a data analyst with the New Orleans Independent Police Monitor, told The Appeal that the agency has approached city officials about making the agency and the public more aware about the developments with the surveillance system, but said “the city hasn’t responded in a way that I believe has been justified.”

On March 1, the police monitor sent Mayor Cantrell a letter obtained by The Appeal stating that “the policy of RTCC and the NOPD is silent regarding oversight when used for law enforcement purposes and when the RTCC is used to facilitate NOPD interactions with the public.” The letter requested a public forum to discuss concerns shared by the monitor and community groups about how the surveillance technology is being used by the city.

Arnold called for officials to present more evidence about the system’s benefits. “For me, it’s really important to be clear about the purposes of these systems,” he said. A spokesperson for Mayor Cantrell told the The Appeal that the Real Time Crime Center has hosted the independent monitor’s representatives on multiple occasions.

Asked how the effectiveness of the Real Time Crime Center is being measured, Norton told The Appeal: “A primary way the New Orleans Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness has measured its impact is through the time it has saved first responders — the time it would have otherwise taken to collect, watch, and log video evidence.”

Norton said the city estimates that of 3,200 requests for assistance made to the Real Time Crime Center from public safety agencies in 2018, a total of 3,000 police manpower hours were saved. She said the city hopes to more than double that number this year.

However, Arnold pointed out that 3,000 hours is equal to only about one and a half officers working 40 hours a week, five days a week, for one year.

“I wonder if it’s worth spending millions to save a few officers time per year,” he said.

And to some, like Robinson’s attorney Lauren Sapp, the surveillance cameras and the Real Time Crime Center both infringe on privacy rights and harm already over-policed communities.

“These cameras are meant to combat violent crime — and maybe sometimes they do — but we need to recognize the way in which they also put many people at greater risk of having their innocent human interactions more heavily scrutinized,” she said. “Governmental scrutiny always hits hardest on vulnerable communities. Mr. Robinson was just brave enough to fight.”